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Shutterstock / Chubykin Arkady

Civilizations in North and Central Asia have ebbed and flowed, along with the river basins that feed and nurture them. Water has always been a key source of livelihood in this subregion, given that many countries are landlocked. Increasing demand for water driven by growing economies, environmental challenges and conflicting national interests push countries to search for mechanisms of balance and efficient water usage. Water is clearly an important aspect of security and development in North and Central Asia.

Challenges of agriculture water use

The agriculture sector in Central Asia countries consumes approximately 90 per cent of available surface water resources in the subregion. Water is a key input for agriculture activities, as was discussed during the Expert Group Meeting session on “Sustainable Agriculture Transformation in North and Central Asia”. However, water productivity in the subregion has remained stagnant over the past decades. The distribution of water resources in the subregion also reveals agricultural overexploitation. Generally, overexploitation, pollution, and water scarcity are main challenges of agriculture water use faced by many countries in North and Central Asia. Water contamination caused by pesticide residuals and mineral fertilizer discharges pollutes other sources such as lakes and rivers. This exacerbates the water stress situation in the subregion.

Besides being a perpetrator for water pollution and water-related challenges, the agriculture sector is also a victim. Multiple teams of scientists analysing the water quality of the Syr-Darya river, one of the longest rivers passing through multiples countries in the subregion, do not recommend using the water for agriculture needs nor for the fishing industry due to high levels of contaminants found in water samples. This is worrying as the river is widely used to irrigate crops. Climate change uncertainties which sees glaciers melting at unprecedented pace will also negatively affect food security in the long term. Immediate actions and solutions need to be taken to combat the side effects of excessive agriculture water use.

Improving water management for sustainable development

Irrigation is the key water source for agricultural activities. The share of cultivated area equipped for irrigation is more than 80 per cent for countries such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Stemming from the pre-independence period, expansion of irrigated areas has been a key priority to drive agricultural activities in the subregion. Improvements to the water management system needs be introduced to upgrade and modernize infrastructure. According to outcomes of a World Bank meeting “Towards Regional Initiatives for Modernizing Irrigation in the 21st Century” in November 2019, irrigation modernization across Central Asia can increase crop yields by 20 per cent over the next decade and up to 50 per cent by 2050. Additionally, this can contribute to the achievement of SDG target 6.4 “to increase water use efficiency across sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals to address water scarcity”, a target especially relevant for North and Central Asia.

Government support measures on a local level are essential to enable and empower farmers to introduce resource saving technologies such as drip irrigation systems for sustainable production or to switch to crops which consume less water given the subsidies provided. There is a need to reassess the current subsidy structure to ensure it meets the evolving needs in the agriculture sector to achieve the long-term national development strategies and sustainable agriculture objectives. Governments need to also ensure that producers have relevant and accurate information, inputs, and services to support agricultural production, while placing emphasis on strengthened value chains as part of the package to build back better post COVID-19, especially taking into account the vulnerability of small and medium enterprises.

Given the transboundary nature of water in North and Central Asia, many countries have set up partnership and cooperation agreements to manage the operations and flow of water resources across transboundary river basins. However, maintenance of water management properties located in border areas, such as the Tuaymuyun reservoir between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, remains challenging and cumbersome. Improved regional cooperation mechanisms need to be in place to overcome transboundary challenges such as equipment operations and water contamination. A benefit sharing approach which focuses on the shift from physical volumes of water to the values coming from water use in the economic, social, political, and environmental spheres would allow optimization of benefits and requires commitment from countries to be operationalized. Analysis of water consumption by different sectors provide a solution to more efficient water management systems among the riparian countries. Regional cooperation should also be accompanied by strong evidence-based decision making backed by open data and multistakeholder consultations.

As water challenges continue to escalate in North and Central Asia, usage of water in the agriculture sector cannot be compromised as it ties back to the essential needs of food security, healthy living and sustainable development of the subregion.

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Patricia Wong Bi Yi
Associate Economic Affairs Officer
Dinara Assaubayeva
Research Assistant
Subregional Office for North and Central Asia +7 727 338 4417