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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Role in Securing Central Asian Water Security

Martin Wirkus | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

Pumping water from the Amu Darya. Image credit: Peretz Partensky via Wikimedia Commons.

Central Asia grapples with a formidable challenge —the looming threat of water scarcity. As the key security organisation in the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is the potential linchpin in addressing this critical issue and fostering regional security.


The current security landscape in Central Asia is intricately tied to water scarcity. The five republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, hold deep ethnic and religious divides which are accentuated by the scarcity of transboundary water supply. The mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan capture and dam water for hydroelectricity which is fed downstream to irrigate the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This glacial water runs through two rivers from the Pamir Mountain range, the Amu Darya which runs through Tajikistan and the Syr Darya which runs through Kyrgyzstan. The supply of such water is marred by inefficient use, specifically, the specialization into water intensive cotton farming in the region and widespread use of alfalfa for livestock feed. A robust third party, such as the SCO, is well-suited to mediate this challenging security dilemma.


The SCO is a security organisation which plays a crucial role in maintaining regional stability and promoting shared development. The organisation's objectives include combatting terrorism and extremism; safeguarding the border security of member countries; fostering economic cooperation and trade; and advocating for the interests of its members in international diplomacy. Encompassing all Central Asian nations except Turkmenistan (which holds observer status), as well as China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and other observer states, the SCO has the potential to function as a platform for collaborative solutions.


A Watershed Moment

Water remains a contested issue in the region, as the downstream communities of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan continue to be threatened by the control of their upstream neighbours over water supply. In August 2023, Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency following Kyrgyzstan’s pause in supply from their own low capacity dams. Moreover, in 2021, the conflict over water across the Kyrgyz-Tajik boarder re-ignited, causing 100 deaths and displacing over 30,000 people in Kyrgyzstan. These tensions will only increase with the Taliban’s construction of a “massive canal”. Set to divert over 50 per cent of the water from the Amu Darya River to Afghanistan, the canal will severely affect downstream communities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Recent conflicts underscore the pressing need for a diplomatic multilateral solution.


Compounding concerns, the region also faces intransient risks posed by climate change. 2023,  for example, saw inflows to the Syr Darya at 84 per cent and Amu Darya at 94 per cent, significantly below the norm. With the changing climate unlikely to stabilize, effective solutions need to be sought based on regional cooperation.

Chinese Opportunities

The SCO has grappled with challenges arising from the disparate priorities of its key member states – China, India, and Russia. By extending its scope to include water security, the organisation could cultivate a shared purpose and common objective. This strategic move would not only confront a critical regional concern but also diminish the perception of SCO ineffectiveness. Engaging in regional water diplomacy would allow the SCO to legitimise itself as an effective security organisation and bolster China’s peacemaker image (following the Iran-Saudi deal). However, there are several challenges the SCO faces in addressing member state water security competition.


Turkmenistan’s absence

Turkmenistan's non-participation in the SCO presents a meaningful challenge to its institutionalisation in the region, and by extension, the resolution of the water crisis. Analysts note that the 'permanently neutral' Turkmenistan has “reaped zero benefits from neutrality [and made the country] cocooned and isolated.” The threat posed by water diversion from the Afghani Qosh Tepa Canal, potentially affecting tens of thousands, adds pressure on Turkmenistan to consider SCO participation. Moreover, China’s recent move to “prioritise Turkmenistan” (over Russia) in a gas pipeline deal could function as a valuable negotiating tool in discussions about SCO-Turkmen integration. Turkmenistan's non-participation in the SCO not only challenges regional institutionalization and water crisis resolution but also highlights the broader issue of divergent interests within the organization.


Divergent Interests within the SCO

The SCO faces challenges stemming from divergent interests among member states. As former Soviet republics, Central Asian states hold deep cultural, security and economic connections to Russia – a dependence that Russia strives to maintain. Yet China's activities in the region curtail Russia’s power. Notably, China's expanding economic integration, exemplified by the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative's “middle corridor,” not only sidesteps Russian trade routes but also diminishes their regional influence.  However, the SCO's ability to resolve the water crisis hinges upon Russian and Chinese cooperation. Therefore, both parties must maintain an accommodating, diplomatic approach to Central Asian influence for the good of the region.


Furthermore, member states of the SCO hold competing interests in the natural gas markets. Russia and Iran hold the first and second-largest gas reserves respectively. As such, the economic development of Central Asian countries and the subsequent freeing up of their large gas reserves may add competition to Iranian and Russian gas exports. Competition for gas markets creates a delicate dynamic within the SCO. Facilitating discussions to ensure fair distribution of resources and addressing member state economic security concerns will be crucial if the SCO is to solve the water security crisis facing Central Asia.  

Central Asia teeters on the brink of potential water conflicts, underscoring the pivotal role of the SCO. By prioritising water security and broadening its institutional focus, the organisation can stimulate cooperation, tackle internal challenges, and fortify its position as a key player in alleviating the pressing issues confronting the region. In pursuit of this objective, the SCO should contemplate expanding its charter to encompass water security as a fundamental element of regional stability.

Martin Wirkus is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. He is excited about exploring the emerging security challenges in Central and East Asian countries, along with delving into the political, economic, and social issues that define this diverse region.


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