What is water diplomacy

Water conflict in Central Asia - “Blue Peace”: What can Swiss water diplomacy achieve?

Tajikistan has high mountains and a lot of water, but little money and energy. No wonder it wants to use its water to generate electricity with the help of dams. Tajikistan needs electricity in the cold winter when people have to heat.

There is one problem, however: Much of Tajikistan's water flows to neighboring Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan needs a lot of water for agriculture - in summer, when everything is growing, and not in winter. What to do?

Complicated situation

When both countries were still part of the Soviet Union, Moscow ruled. Agriculture was king and the power plants in Tajikistan only played second fiddle: the water was sent down the valley in summer. In return, Tajikistan received cheap fossil fuels for heating from its neighbors.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both countries first looked for themselves. Tajikistan sent a lot of water through the power turbines and to Uzbekistan in winter, it even wanted to build new dams. A few years ago, the then Uzbek President Islom Karimov threatened - somewhat veiled - with war.

The situation is even more complicated. There are three other countries in the region that were integrated into central water management during the Soviet era: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. After 1991 they too put their own needs first.

Switzerland provides development aid

Switzerland has been providing development aid in the region for over 20 years. She wants to incorporate her great water know-how.

There are also connections to Central Asia: Switzerland represents these countries in the World Bank. And after all, it is Uzbekistan's largest export market - the reason for this is gold, which Switzerland imports from there.

Climate change is exacerbating the situation

Despite great competition for water and despite threats, there has not yet been a war in the region. The states somehow muddle through. For how much longer?

"We expect that the situation will worsen with the changing climate," says André Wehrli from the SDC, the federal development agency. That is why Switzerland wants to use the “Blue Peace” program to help governments defuse water conflicts through negotiations.

Not an easy task for the Swiss

For example, the Swiss have convinced the governments of Central Asia to set up a forum where they can exchange ideas informally. Not a matter of course in this region, that required intensive diplomatic work.

At the same time, the SDC is building a network of young water experts. In a culture that is still shaped by Soviet centralism, they have hardly had a say so far - but will have to solve the problems in the future.

A lot of advice, little success

The "Blue Peace" project has a difficult legacy: for over two decades, various organizations have been trying to encourage the Central Asian countries to use water more sparingly and to cooperate more closely. The track record is meager.

A popular saying in Central Asia sums it up: if every consultant who wanted to help the dying Aral Sea had brought a glass of water to the lake - the body of water would have been saved long ago.

Projects in individual countries

Switzerland has also carried out some water projects in the region, some of which should promote cooperation between the countries. The majority of the projects are now restricted to individual countries again.

“We noticed that some approaches didn't work,” says André Wehrli from the SDC. For example, a SDC project wanted to set up a water information system for the entire region. But the individual countries were not ready: Most of the data on the use of water are secret, the topic is too important for the countries.

The impossible suddenly becomes possible

For the past year and a half, however, things have started to move. Long-time Uzbek President Islom Karimov died in autumn 2016.

He had ruled his country with an iron fist and treated Uzbekistan's neighbors in the same way. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is now much less aggressive. Discussions with neighboring countries quickly took place. Suddenly the impossible seems possible.

Cooperation on the Rogun Dam?

For example, the Uzbek government is talking to its Tajik neighbors about the possibility of working together on the construction of its huge Rogun Dam. It was this system that prompted ex-President Karimov to threaten the war.

A spectacular U-turn that raises questions: How much can foreign aid à la “Blue Peace” do if things have changed little for decades despite such efforts - but a change of president is enough for a fresh start?

Lack of know-how for water agreements

Switzerland's water diplomacy had no part in the change in Uzbekistan's foreign policy, says André Wehrli from the SDC. But willingness to talk does not guarantee that something will change in reality. The countries lack the know-how to be able to conclude water agreements on their own.

"We can prepare the countries for such negotiations by showing them what cooperation means: there is a give and take, and we need to find an acceptable compromise for everyone," says André Wehrli.

The Senegal River as a model

This spring the SDC organized a visit to West Africa for water experts from the various governments. There, four countries have jointly managed the Senegal River for several decades. They built two dams together. This cooperation is considered a shining example internationally.

Vohidjon Ahmadjonov from the Uzbek Ministry of Water was on the excursion. He says: “That is very impressive. We should act similarly with ourselves, then the problems could be solved better. "

The beginnings seem to have been made.