Iskandar Abdullaev: "Transboundary rivers are always politics"

Interview with Dr. Iskandar Abdullaev, the Executive Director of The Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC)

China-Kazakhstan cooperation on transboundary water management has been rather successful. What, in your opinion, accounts for such constructive negotiations framework?

Iskandar Abdullayev:
We have to go a little back in history to the Soviet times, when the rivers of Central Asia were transboundary ones shared by the Soviet Union and other states, including China. The Soviet Union and China had a lot of differences on water issues, but they had a solid background of agreements. First of all, this experience needs to be accounted for, when we talk about China and Kazakhstan. Secondly, it is economic interest. Kazakhstan is one of the largest trading partners of China in Central Asia. Other countries of the region are also trading with China, but Kazakhstan is the biggest. And finally, China is launching big initiatives, like the Belt and Road Initiative and others, where the role of Kazakhstan is important, as a transit country, as a country which will give access to Russia and other parts of the world.  Therefore, I think the Chinese understand how important good relations between China and Kazakhstan are. I would also acknowledge the role of Kazakh institutions, especially water management specialists from the Institute of Geography, who prepared the background documentation to make such an agreement successful. This is also very important. Because if you don’t have capacity to negotiate, you will accept whatever you are offered. In my view, these are the reasons behind recent good developments in transboundary relations between China and Kazakhstan. It was not always like that. Kazakhstan has been facing a lot of problems over the last five years, trying to negotiate acceptable solutions on transboundary water issues. But now, we are witnessing that this journey is coming to the end. And I’m sure it will be a good agreement.

What are major challenges facing Kazakhstan’s water diplomacy? 

More than 70% of water which Kazakhstan uses is coming from transboundary rivers. Kazakhstan is heavily dependent on transboundary rivers, shared with Russia, China and other Central Asian countries. In this situation, you have to have strong institutional capacity to deal with transboundary issues. You have to have really good relations and agreements with neighbors, and very good institutional capacity to monitor how these agreements are implemented. This is a big institutional challenge. You have to have funding to support these institutions. We can’t properly implement agreements with our neighboring countries if we don’t have financial backing. For example, some of the infrastructure now financed by Kazakhstan are in the territory of another country, like in the Chu river basin, Talas basin, where Kazakhstan is paying the cost of infrastructure on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. So, you do need finance, otherwise the agreement will collapse. Another challenge is that not only the quantity of water is important, but also the quality, and this is the biggest challenge.  Maybe now Kazakhstan can reach a good agreement with China on the quantity of water in the Irtysh and other water basins, but what about the quality? For Kazakhstan, the Aral sea problem is a good illustration how environmental issues could also be a problem in a transboundary context.  How can we make sure that neighboring countries of Kazakhstan will have a good will to fulfil the environmental part of the agreement? So far, this is not discussed. There are, of course, journalists writing about it, but it is not on the agenda. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes declarations and agreements are not sufficient to have a good situation in transboundary basins. For example, Kazakhstan has a very good agreement among all four countries of the Aral sea basin with Russia, and now will have it hopefully with China. But it does not always deliver results and in accordance with the agreed time frame. So the enforcement of these agreements will be an important question and also a challenge for Kazakhstan. And last but not least, we are  facing some new challenges, like the climate change. We now have agreements, and more or less we are trying to fulfil these agreements, but if the climate change hits Central Asia and China as well, or the southern part of Russia, the transboundary rivers will not deliver water that we want. In this case, shall we reconsider the agreements? Do Kazakh institutions have enough capacity to re-negotiate these agreements? I think these are huge challenges, but I would say the most important aspect is political. Transboundary rivers are always politics. We know that we have good relations in Central Asia among the five countries. They are changing, they are improving. However, without political will, the agreements will not be implemented. The same goes for our agreements with China. Now the interests of Kazakhstan and China are merging and they want to develop economic cooperation. But what if they end up competing. Will this result in changes in the transboundary river management? So I would say, transboundary rivers relation is a dynamic process, you have to be always ready for different options: the good option, and a few scenarios of failure.

Are Kazakhstan’s and China’s approaches to transboundary water management different? Can these differences be reconciled?

Yes, because these two actors have different power. China traditionally is a difficult partner. Chinese make agreements on their terms, because they are very powerful. We are not talking only about military power, but also economic power. For China, constructing a reservoir or putting a dam is not a question of money, but a question of time. The capacity of Kazakhstan, the biggest economic power in Central Asia, is not comparable with that of China. From this point of view, development of water management in China is much quicker than in Kazakhstan. And also, we need to recognize that the need for water in China is many times higher than in Kazakhstan. That is one of the reasons why approaches in Kazakhstan and China differ. I would say, China now counts each drop of water, but Kazakhstan still does not face such big challenges on water. So we have a different view. We think we still have time to develop water resources and save them, when China is actually going after each drop of water. We have to start looking attentively at what China is doing. China now is putting a lot of effort at placing its environmental policy at a very high level. They are really promoting the ecological civilization concept much quicker than we are. So maybe soon, we will have to learn from China how to really manage environment. Now they may have big problem with the environment, but within the next decade, China may become one of the good players from the point of view of the environment. So there is positive and negative in China. And if we want to reconcile our policies, we have to learn what they are doing. Now they put environment as their first priority, we do not. So we will be blamed at the end by China and the international community that we don’t know the value of our resources. On the contrary, China puts a lot of effort into water saving. In the adjacent to us territory  China has millions of hectares of land under drip irrigation. In Kazakhstan, total drip irrigation maybe 100 000 hectares. China is learning how to better use the water. We have to be careful, that this is not done because they want to release more water to Kazakhstan, but they want to extend the irrigated area. So we have to learn the policies and practice of China, and try to take care when we are negotiating. We would have a very weak position if we come to China and say: let’s reconsider the agreement, we are not happy. Then China will ask us: what are you doing to save the water in your territory? Normally, you have to come up with very strong and good arguments, before you blame someone about misusing the water. China is not misusing the water. China needs more water, since it has bigger population than Kazakhstan does. But it is not an excuse for Kazakhstan to not to improve the efficiency of water use on its territory. We can reconcile, when we are doing the same level of the effort. But unfortunately, we are very easy-going towards our resources. We can waste them, we can ignore the demand for water and say “we are fine”. But, then neighbors will not give us extra water. The same applies to other countries. Uzbekistan’s population is growing, Tajikistan’s population is growing. This river goes through these three countries, and they will also say: “ok, we now have sufficient population, we need more water. Why should we give extra water to Kazakhstan?” When you are downstream, you have to do double what your upstream neighbors do, in order to be on the safe side. This is my message. 

What should be the way forward for Kazakhstan and China to achieve better water management? Is the problem more political or technical? What mechanisms can be used? Is there role for other actors and participants? 

I would usually respond that yes, other players should be involved, but let’s be realistic. China-Kazakhstan relations are shaped by governments and not other stakeholders. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending in which position you are, China is too big and too tightly  ordered to say: “let’s also involve researchers and communities.” I think, this is first and foremost government to government. Of course, later, when governments reach an agreement, researchers should work together to find out the good ways of not harming each other. So far, I don’t see any space for saying that the establishment of  a local level Irtysh river basin or Ili-Balkhash level basin management is possible. I’m not a believer in this. It is really high-level politics. After governments settle the issue, basin organization, communities and researchers can work together. This is the second generation of stakeholders. But, is it technical or political, as you already understood from my response - it is political. You have to have the bargaining power. What kind of bargaining can we have in this case? I think it can come from good relations between the countries. They depend on each other very much. Therefore, I think China is recognizing the role of Kazakhstan, and I think Kazakhstan should use this opportunity to get a really good agreement. That is good timing. Maybe later there won’t be such an opportunity. There are also technical issues. I told you that Chinese have the capacity to make sure that water that flows from China could be much cleaner. They have both technologies and funding. If we have a good dialogue now on the technical level, to show them the consequences of contamination of water for Kazakhstan and also giving economic calculation of losses which Kazakhstan is having because of this contamination, I am sure this also could be a part of the agreement. That is the technical part. But mostly it is political.

How can the implementation of Belt and Road Initiative impact water management issues?

I recently went to China. I am a member of the Chinese Consul on International Development and Cooperation, which had a session on Belt and Road. For the first time I could listen to what Chinese say about the BRI, and my sense is that from their point of view this initiative is smaller than what we imagine. One thing is clear, China has extra capacities, which they would like to extend in order to promote their development. But for our region, is the BRI good? In my view, it is. Our countries have not received much financing over the last 20 years. Kazakhstan has some amount flowing in, but it has the capacity to receive more FDI. The same goes for other Central Asian countries. But we also have our problems, why this FDI is not coming. Now Chinese bringing easy money and they say: we could help you build roads, dams, reservoirs, railroads. This is very attractive to us. However, we need to be careful, and we need to be particularly careful with investments in the water sector of Central Asia, because it is riddled with problems. Upstream countries would like to build big dams, release them and then get energy, and that makes downstream countries worry. This dialogue in the region is now improving. However, we are not yet at the point where we have a full agreement among ourselves and say: “Chinese colleagues, please come and invest in this infrastructure, we would like to see this construction.” Therefore, in this context, if agreement is not there about this infrastructure, bringing investment may actually trigger a conflict, rather than solve it. So, we have to be careful, and Chinese have to really work with all these five countries in order to invest in places where they already have an agreement. Whether it is possible or not is not certain yet. Because we don’t know, what they actually think about it. From the security point of view, China is not interested in unsettling Central Asia. If there is a conflict in Central Asia, it can easily spill over to Chinese territory.  But the economic interest sometimes is difficult to manage. The Chinese may invest in places where Central Asians do not have agreements. Besides, there are also a lot of technical consequences of this investment. How much flow change will there be? How much will the capacity of rivers be enhanced? We already have big problems with our environment. Will it not deteriorate it? And what about safety issues? We don’t know what kind of technology will be used, will it be only Chinese technology, which is not bad, but compared to European and even Russian standards are not so far up to the level. And one more issue: who will have the ownership of this infrastructure if it is built with Chinese money. What kind of negotiations capacity will countries have? Most probably, not so much, because they are already so indebted. And I wonder if they would also accept some conditions which are preferable for the Chinese.
Lately I’ve been talking to many policymakers and asking what they think about Chinese investments. They are very positive. They say, we have a lot of gaps between the 1960-70s construction boom, when all this infrastructure was built. Now after 60 years, almost all infrastructure is collapsing. If we don’t take the money, we will not rebuild and rehabilitate, and the next problem for Central Asia will be an infrastructure collapse. Our cities will not have sufficient capacity to deliver drinking water, our rivers will not deliver water whenever we need, we cannot regulate them, disasters will destroy the system. So there is a very serious need. Even Kazakhstan with its own huge economic potential cannot rebuild the whole system. I am not talking about Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where this need is much higher. There is positive attitude towards China, and everything depends on how far this political dialogue, which started among Central Asian countries, will proceed, that they will tackle this investment inflow in a wise way which also doesn’t create any division among them.

What did Chinese say about the BRI at that meeting?

The Chinese are relatively open. They declared what kind of instruments they have and from which sources they are going to fund the BRI. They are not in a hurry. They can push a few projects and see the results, measure their economic return, and then increase the funding. They are very flexible. The West does not understand this. Western countries think that China will pour billions and lose them. But they are not going to lose their money. They very carefully and pragmatically try to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Whenever they face fierce opposition, they take it back and look at what is going on, analyzing the outcome. I would say, they are planning long term, at the span of 50 years minimum. We in Central Asia have to be very pragmatic. Historically, for thousands of years, the region was at the trade crossroads and we benefited a lot from the Silk Road connecting us to China. I hope this time we will also be able to benefit and not to lose, especially when it comes to water, which is our most important resource.   


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