ECC Platform Library


Water Cooperation in Central Asia - Interview with Benjamin Pohl

16 April, 2018

In an interview for the Water, Energy & Food Security Nexus Platform, adelphi's Benjamin Pohl gives insights into a recent study on water cooperation in Central Asia and explains how transnational water management can strengthen economic and political ties in the region.

Nexus Platform: Last year, adelphi and CAREC published "Rethinking Water in Central Asia – the costs of inaction and benefits of water cooperation"? Why this study and focus?

Benjamin Pohl: Central Asia is a very interesting and in many ways unique region when it comes to transboundary waters. Because of its shared Soviet heritage, it features very ambitious water infrastructure that was designed for a single country. That country, however, fell apart in 1991, at a time when the disastrous environmental consequences of the Soviet interventions in the Aral Sea basin’s water cycle became impossible to ignore. The newly independent republics created a number of regional institutions to ensure water cooperation and save the Aral Sea, but that cooperation has remained limited.

There is pretty widespread agreement, within the water community, that transboundary water cooperation is more beneficial than unilateral planning in transboundary basins, but reality in Central Asia (and in many basins elsewhere) does not live up to that theoretical insight. Which begs two questions: Why? And how can reality be improved?

These questions are at the heart of our study, which was financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). SDC has been active in the region for many years to promote better water governance and transboundary water cooperation, and it was grappling with that very question: how to convince Central Asian stakeholders of the benefits of closer water cooperation?

And one idea that arose was to ask, well, how much better could Central Asia do through closer water cooperation? If we look at the situation today and compare it to a scenario of close cooperation, what’s the difference? Our study calls that difference the cost of inaction – the difference between what we do have in the status quo, and what we could have in the future. So, inaction does not imply that nothing has been or is being done or that there is no cooperation of any kind, but that there is a cost to keeping things as they are at present, rather than cooperating more closely, to mutual benefit.

And putting that focus on the costs of inaction, which is rather novel in the water world, is an attempt to shift the conversation, to not accept that we start from political borders and then perhaps think about potential benefits that cooperation at some point in the future might bring, but to start from integrated transboundary management and then consider the costs that arise from doing uncoordinated national management instead. Here, we also sought to build on the insight from psychology and behavioural economics that people are not homines oeconomici that treat all gains and losses equally, but that most people prefer avoiding losses to making gains.  

So in short, the purpose of our study is to help support the political rationale for improving water cooperation, by raising awareness of the additional prosperity and well-being that would be possible through cooperation.

What are the results of your study?

The costs of the status quo of water management in Central Asia are very significant, and every country in the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – loses out from lack of cooperation over water. Many consequences of limited cooperation, especially the social, environmental and political costs, are very hard to quantify, much less monetize, so giving any figure is always fraught. Yet, we estimated that the annual opportunity costs amount to more than 4.5 billion USD. And that sum underestimates the full, true cost of the only limited cooperation that we have witnessed over the past decades.

What kind of costs are these, and how are they connected to lack of cooperation?

It will not come as a surprise to readers of this publication that water is connected to many other sectors. Its management has both direct and indirect effects. In Central Asia, costs directly related to water management primarily concern losses in agricultural production due to inadequate seasonal availability of water for irrigation. They also include damages from winter floods, and the costs of new, regionally ‘redundant’ infrastructure built to protect countries against the consequences of unilateral water management.

These economic costs are accompanied by significant social and environmental costs because they damage or destroy rural livelihoods and vulnerable ecosystems in particular – witness the Aral Sea. In addition to these direct effects, insufficient water cooperation causes further negative impacts indirectly. These indirect costs in other sectors often surpass those directly related to water management. For example, in Central Asia lack of water cooperation is related to inefficient trade in energy and other sectors, constrains countries’ access to international finance, and creates political frictions. Ultimately, it might even foster instability and conflict.

The more than 4.5 billion USD only include costs arising from agricultural losses, inefficient electric trade and the opportunity costs of one hydropower plant not yet built for lack of water cooperation which has resulted in lack of access to international finance. Such numbers have to be taken with a significant pinch of salt, of course, as the models from which they are derived include many simplifying assumptions. However, they indicate the order of magnitude of the costs of inaction, of sticking with the status quo rather than seeking to improve cooperation.

If the costs of not cooperating are so significant and concern all countries, why are they not avoided? Why do countries not embrace the opportunities that water cooperation affords?

I think that, fundamentally, these limitations in cooperation are an unintended consequence of the pressures of political and economic disintegration after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Every newly independent government focused on state- and nation-building, and they underestimated the impact of the infrastructure and nexus interdependencies they inherited, an infrastructure that had been designed for integrated resource management across the region, not for national self-sufficiency, especially not for uncoordinated national strategies. And for various reasons, governments proved unable to build a political consensus on how to better adapt to this disintegration.

During the Soviet era, major dams and reservoirs were constructed in the upstream countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, primarily for irrigation in downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and, especially, Uzbekistan. At the same time, upstream energy needs were satisfied through central planning that drew on downstream fossil fuel deposits. But, after independence, energy prices started rising for upstream countries. So, water releases from their reservoirs were increasingly driven by their electricity needs in winter, rather than downstream irrigation needs in summer. And downstream countries objected to the plans of upstream countries to build additional hydropower plants which they feared would further impair their irrigation needs. These differing interests have resulted in tensions between Central Asian states, and those tensions were increased by unsuccessful agreements between them on water release regimes and related compensation. And lingering perceptions of intentionality and lack of effort in implementation then compounded mutual distrust. 

That’s the ‘glass half empty’ view. But seeing the current state of Central Asian water cooperation as a failure betrays an unrealistic benchmark. Governments in the region were embarking on distinctive state- and nation-building projects. In that context, the regional organizations that were set up to coordinate and manage regional water resources were not designed to foster regional integration, but to prevent ruinous disintegration. And they were successful in avoiding the disastrous conflict that some observers warned about. At the moment, we can actually observe a lot of progress and optimism on water and other cooperation in the region.

From a nexus point of view, how could the situation in Central Asia be improved?

There are very strong and obvious nexus links in Central Asia, with the key question being whether to prioritize water use and timing for irrigation (food) or hydropower (energy). These uses are not necessarily competing, but they often do compete under current infrastructure conditions. In principle, adding additional upstream reservoirs could allow enhanced energy production during winter while releasing water for irrigation in summer – and modernizing irrigation infrastructure downstream could reduce water demand. Moreover, a shared electricity network would allow countries to meet currently unmet energy demands, reduce fuel costs, decrease operational expenses (as countries would collectively need far lower aggregate levels of spare and regulation capacity), avoid water spillage for lack of electricity demand, and fully exploit the economic potential of upstream reservoirs because upstream countries’ hydro facilities could serve as cost-efficient power reserves. Managing these resources collectively could thus create significant benefits for all. 

However, such adjustments not only require significant investments and willingness to adapt, they also require significant trust by all sides – that the interests of all users will in fact be taken into account and that the agreements on which the business case for investment relies will in fact be honored. Past agreements that implicitly or explicitly traded water against energy foundered because of a lack of commitment and institutional mechanisms. And because incentive structures were insufficiently well-designed to ensure compliance. Finding and implementing workable agreements requires cross-governmental coordination. And it requires clear signals from the top that there are benefits to bureaucracies for finding and implementing solutions rather than shifting blame. Now, the good news is that, for the past year, we can see such signals being sent. And consequently there is far more optimism in the region that problems can be overcome.   

I guess there is little hope that water management will be easier in the future, right? Or how are Central Asia and its water resources expected to be affected by climate change? And how could a nexus approach help to improve the situation?

There are a number of secular trends that will complicate water management in Central Asia – demographic growth, deteriorating infrastructure and environmental challenges including climate change. According to a recent UN assessment, water demand for electricity generation and cooling will likely rise, and so will energy requirements for moving, treating and storing water as well as for growing, storing, processing and moving food.

However, there is also significant scope for increasing water efficiency. Central Asia currently has the lowest water efficiency in the world, and making water management more effective could compensate for some of the negative effects that climate change threatens to bring about in the form of above-average temperature increases, altered precipitation regimes, more frequent heat extremes, increasing aridity and glacier melting as well as its associated risks of floods, mudflows and reduced summer water availability. 

As you sound optimistic about Central Asia’s water management potential, could the region serve as a model for other world regions with similar challenges?

Central Asia can in many ways serve as a hopeful example.

First, Central Asia has also given rise to a number of cooperation frameworks at different levels which have helped it cope during the difficult years. Therefore, it has a better developed institutional ecosystem than other parts of the continent – and good practices in one region can serve as inspiration for the extension of cooperation to other locales and issues. It also shows the benefits of polycentric cooperation, cooperation that is not fully reliant on one single framework. That experience with polycentric cooperation might also be interesting for other transboundary basins that want to increase the resilience of cooperation.

Second, political relations in Central Asia have remarkably improved since they reached their nadir during the first 15 years of this century. During that time, Central Asian governments built some new infrastructure that may be ‘redundant’ regional point of view. But it has reduced national dependencies and vulnerabilities and has thereby removed or mitigated potential ‘flashpoints’ of political conflict. So the results of non-cooperation may now contribute to confidence in embracing closer cooperation. All of which shows that there can be progress even after protracted difficulties.


The interview was conducted by Michael Stoyke.

Benjamin Pohl is a Senior Project Manager at adelphi. His research and consulting work focus on climate and resource governance and their relationship to foreign policy, security and development policy. He is responsible for the topic areas foreign policy, diplomacy, and water cooperation.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy



Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more


Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more


Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more


Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more


The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more


Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more


Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more


Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more



The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more


As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more