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Kyrgyzstan: The Kempir-Abad reservoir – political uncertainty or an opportunity for cooperation?

20 June 2023

Soviet water and energy infrastructure legacies have been painfully problematic for the countries of Central Asia for years. Relations between the countries of the region recently show a gradual shift away from that historical legacy, particularly in terms of a desire to renovate old infrastructure, overcome border conflict, enhance multilateral cooperation and trade, while seeking to mitigate the damages caused by climate change. However, bilateral border agreements are adding new complexities to old problems. Central Asia is a region where the issue of disputed borders still lingers on three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and these border treaties have become a point of contention and violent inter-ethnic conflict. 

On 11 December 1965, the Councils of Ministers of the Uzbek and Kyrgyz Soviet Union Republics (SUR) adopted a resolution commissioning the construction of the Kampyr-Ravat (now Kempir-Abad) reservoir. This major hydroelectric project, located on the disputed border between the two former Soviet republics and in an area inhabited by a significant Uzbek ethnic minority, has a capacity of 1,750 million cubic metres of water. Geographer and cartographer Temirkul Eshengulov explains that the name of this water infrastructure project comes from a mineral found in the ground. Ironically, more than 5,000 hectares of fertile land in the Uzgen district of Osh province lie under the reservoir’s waters.

The Kempir-Abad reservoir and the Andijan Dam. Credit: Danil Usmanov.

The hydroelectric complex lies in the mountains of Khanabad at the outlet of the Kara-Darya River within the Fergana Valley. Waters of the Fergana canal flow from the Kempir-Abad reservoir and pour through the Aravan District to Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, water flows into the reservoir along the Zhazy River. The main purpose of the hydroproject is to regulate water flows in the interest of irrigated agriculture, with associated power generation. There are two hydropower plants at the reservoir, which are used by Uzbekistan. Following the construction of the reservoir, Uzbekistan received the main rights for the regulation of the Kara-Darya River and its three major canals. Kyrgyzstan was entitled to irrigate 58,000 hectares from the Kempir-Abad reservoir, including 8,000 hectares of new irrigation land.  

Although at one time the Kempir-Abad reservoir was leased to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan still uses 14 per cent of its waters. The remaining 86 per cent is used by Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, the dam is known as the Andijan reservoir; it is of strategic importance inasmuch as it provides water to a large part of the Fergana Valley population. Following years of border dispute, at the heart of which were unresolved claims from both countries for the use and jurisdiction of the Kempir-Abad/Andijan reservoir, officials from both governments have finally decided to settle on an agreement.  

In October 2022, members of the Jogorku Kenesh Committee on International Affairs in Kyrgyzstan approved a draft agreement for the delimitation and demarcation of the country’s borders with Uzbekistan. Under the agreement, 4,485 hectares of land within the Kempir-Abad reservoir would be transferred to Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan would receive 19,699 hectares in exchange. Ethnic distribution remains a major problem, as the shifting of the border would lead to the creation of new minority groups, mainly ethnic Uzbeks on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border.  

The agreement was signed off by the respective foreign ministers in early November 2022 and passed through the two respective parliaments in the following weeks, after which it was ratified by the two presidents. The agreement is deemed to lack transparency, particularly in Kyrgyzstan where political decision-making has been called into question. Fears of water and land handovers to Uzbekistan have become cause for serious political dissidence, not least among minority activists. 

On 15 October 2022, kurultai or public gatherings were organized in the Uzgen district near the Kempir-Abad reservoir, bringing together thousands of people, including current and former MPs, politicians, local residents and minority activists. Many of those who travelled from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek were stopped by traffic police, who sought to prevent access to the reserve, citing limited travel in the winter period and ‘flat tyres’. Despite police blockades, thousands of people managed to get through to join public consultations on the future of Kempir-Abad.   

A few days later, the Committee for the Protection of Kempir-Abad Water Reservoir conducted its first gathering, bringing together activists, as well as current and former politicians. During the meeting, members of the committee discussed further action, including the need to raise public awareness of political decision-making in Kyrgyzstan. Discussions were followed by peaceful marches calling for national unity. This coincided with peaceful marches throughout Uzgen district demanding that water jurisdiction should not be handed over to Uzbekistan.  

Fast forward to 23 October 2022. The public in Kyrgyzstan now refer to this day as ‘Black Sunday’. On this day, 16 activists were detained following accusations of public disorder. Pending a final ruling, these activists could be sentenced to anywhere between 7 and 10 years’ imprisonment. Among those currently detained are Rita Karasartova (human rights activist), Asiya Sasykbaeva (former MP), Perizat Suranova (journalist), Klara Sooronkulova (former candidate for Presidency), Gulnara Jurabaeva (former Central Electoral Committee member), Ravshan Jeenbekov (former MP) and Kanat Isaev (former MP), among others. Prior to detention, the police and intelligence services raided their homes looking for compromising materials. According to a report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), raids were carried out in violation of basic human rights. Several politicians and political parties accused the Kyrgyz government and called for national dialogue. Notwithstanding the public appeal, the overall number of people detained as part of the Kempir-Abad conflict has increased to 22 people. These detainees are now commonly referred to in the press as the ‘Kempir-Abad 22’ and a campaign for their release has raised major international concerns over human and minority rights violations in Kyrgyzstan. 

It is important to emphasize that a lack of openness and transparency in decision-making is cause for much suspicion among the ethnic minorities including Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan (who are primarily engaged in the agricultural sphere), whose fear is that a lack of water resources might have a negative impact on the cultivation of fruits and vegetables and consequently reduce their source of income.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has met with activists and residents of the minority-dominant districts whose waters will be transferred to Uzbekistan as part of the border agreement with that country. The visit has further polarized the public, whose questions concerning the transfer of water jurisdiction remain. Among the meeting participants was Karasartova, who released a 30-minute video in the Kyrgyz language explaining in detail the outcome of the political process. Karasartova also urges the public not to trust the government. She finishes her video with an appeal to the public to protect the reservoir as it has strategic significance for the country and the minority local residents whose survival depends on this water. According to political analyst Mars Sariev, the conflict has become highly politicized, to the point where it may destabilize the broader region, and disrupt the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway, currently under construction, among other things.

Kasiet Mamyrbay, daughter of detained human rights activist Rita Karasartova, speaking during the #Reaction march, a peaceful protest supporting the prisoners in the Kempir-Abad case. Bishkek, Kyrgsztan. 25 November 2022. Credit: Danil Usmanov.

Clashes in Fergana Valley

Since the Central Asian states gained independence in 1991, most irrigation systems in the region have deteriorated and water consumption has reached levels that are increasingly difficult to maintain. Climate change causes the rapid melting of glaciers, a major source of fresh water, which has also taken its toll on river systems, lakes, and their dependent populations. According to the most pessimistic predictions, by 2070 river flows in the region could be reduced by 40 per cent. 

Conflicts between the countries of the region periodically erupt over the use of water from the two main rivers in Central Asia – the Syr Darya, the Amu Darya and their tributaries. As the competition for resources intensifies, underlying ethnic tensions, particularly between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek ethnic minority are exacerbated, raising concerns over further hate crimes and intensified discrimination in cities like Osh, where the Uzbek ethnic minority makes up nearly half of the population.  

As minorities continue to face discrimination on economic, security and other matters, and as Uzbeks are often targets of harassment, arrest and mistreatment by law enforcement agencies based on dubious terrorism or extremism charges, so water stress and border agreements without community support all conspire to aggravate an already critical and volatile situation. Ethnic divisions underpinning the uneven distribution and scarcity of fresh water in Central Asia is, as the media have repeatedly pointed out, a major threat to regional security. 

Attempts at land redistribution have in the past led to violent conflicts, the largest of which was the Osh massacre in 1990. According to official figures, more than 300 people died, although unofficial estimates are far higher. Underlying tensions were never resolved, hence the violence that occurred again in Osh in 2010. Water conflict has degenerated into inter-state violence in many border villages across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in recent years. During the May 2021 clashes, 41 people died and 224 were injured on both sides of the conflict. More than 20,000 local residents were evacuated, and houses, schools, shops and restaurants were burned down. The Golovnoy water distribution point, around which the conflict first erupted, is on the Isfara River (called Aksai in Kyrgyzstan). Geographically, it is at the south-western edge of the Fergana Valley and the spurs of the Turkestan Ridge, from whose northern slopes the river flows. After Tajikistan, the Isfara flows through Uzbekistan, where it formerly flowed into the Syr Darya. Today, the river’s waters are diverted for irrigation and do not reach its mouth. 

As the Kempir-Abad dispute demonstrates, current conflicts over water in the border areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are not only underpinned by environmental problems concerning water shortage, but also ethnic tensions caused by unresolved minority and majority border delimitations. In order to achieve any kind of national integration, meaningful and equitable participation by all affected communities is critical, as the ‘Kempir-Abad 22’ stress. And without national integration, the future of the region remains both politically and environmentally uncertain.

Photo: A Kyzyl-Oktyabr resident herds sheep in a pasture next to the Kempir-Abad reservoir. Credit: Danil Usmanov.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >