Facing Water Challenges in the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan:A WWDR3 Case Study

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Regional cooperation and moves towards efficient water use are the keys to recovering from loss of livelihoods, mass migration, rampant pollution and ecosystem damage resulting from unsustainable irrigation practices and other legacies of the past.


Focus Areas

Water supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance


The bulk of freshwater resources in Uzbekistan comes from the Syr Darya, a river originating in Tajikistan; the Amu Darya, which flows in from Kyrgyzstan; and, to a lesser extent, the Kashka Darya and Zarafshan rivers. Available freshwater resources in Uzbekistan are estimated at 67 billion m3 per year. Of this amount, 55.1 billion m3 comes from surface waters and 7.8 billion m3 from groundwater. The rest is reclaimed in the form of return water from leaking irrigation channels and infiltration from irrigated fields, which collects in localized depressions. Agriculture plays an important role in the economy, employing over 60% of the population. Although only 10% of the 444,000 km2 of arable land is irrigated, the irrigation efficiency is low, so this water demand amounts to 92.5% of overall annual water consumption in Uzbekistan.

With demand for water growing in all sectors, it will be impossible to meet the combined needs in the medium term. Projections based on existing consumption trends indicate there could be a water deficit of up to 14 billion m3 by 2015. Although the growth in household and industrial water demand could be met through increased efficiency, the need to reduce agriculture’s overall share is clear. Despite a decision of the Cabinet of Ministries not to revise water allocation to the various sectors for 15 years, a regulation adopted in May 2007 is aimed at developing a programme of water conservation and efficient use of water resources.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Mass Migration

Mass population movement in the Aral Sea basin began as early as 1966 when a major earthquake destroyed much of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. From then until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, mass migration was mainly due to compulsory movement of labour from overpopulated regions to new development areas. Since 1991, ethnic and environmental factors have played increasingly important roles in shaping migration. Deteriorating environmental conditions, combined with recurring drought, have resulted in agricultural and fisheries production declining by as much as 50%, spelling economic disaster for almost 3 million people (including those in areas of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan near the Aral Sea) whose main source of income was agriculture. Aggregate losses in Uzbekistan associated with mass migration from provinces near the Aral Sea between 1970 and 2001 are estimated to be above US$20 million. Many people still living in the high-migration areas suffer protein and vitamin deficiencies resulting from malnutrition and extreme poverty. In addition, since the migrants have generally been young, the birth rate has decreased significantly.

Environmental degradation

Uzbekistan faces pressing problems due to water pollution and environmental degradation. Unsustainable irrigation projects, introduced during the Soviet period, have irreversibly damaged the Aral Sea and its basin. Continuing use of similar practices since the collapse of the Soviet regime poses a still greater danger for local people’s livelihoods. Pollution and other environmental contamination are causing major public health problems, and diseases stemming directly from exposure to untreated water and toxic waste are on the rise. Direct discharges of wastewater containing high concentrations of pesticide, fertilizer, and industrial and household waste have rendered much of the surface water unfit to drink. In addition, nearly 38% of groundwater reserves are now unusable.

Inefficient use of water in irrigation, combined with ineffective drainage systems, has flooded large areas of land with a mixture of fresh and polluted return water. Aerial photos taken in 2005 reveal pools of semi-contaminated water, covering as much as 800 km2 in all. On the other hand, these areas have become diverse and flourishing ecosystems, which contribute to the region’s socio-economic development through recreational uses as well as fishing, hunting and reed collection. Yet because there is no legislation regulating their management, these ecosystems have no economic or environmental status and are at risk from invasive species, gradual salinization and eutrophication (nutrient pollution).

Allocation of transboundary water resources- the need to set common priorities

Following the Second World War, as part of the regional socio-economic development plan under the Soviet regime, the water resources of the major transboundary rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were mainly allocated for irrigating vast tracts in the Aral Sea basin. Water resources development projects were prioritized to meet irrigation needs. In the 1990s, the potential of the Syr Darya-Narin basin was almost fully developed to assure a constant flow of 32 billion to 33 billion m3, or 94% of the river’s natural regime. The Amu Darya was also modified to maintain a flow of 60 billion to 64 billion m3. The regional development plan also relied on hydropower generation to meet electricity needs in Central Asia, although this was considered only a side benefit because agriculture contributed more to the region’s GDP.

After the Central Asian countries became independent in 1991, water management problems began to surface. They largely stem from differences in the needs and priorities of the five Aral Sea basin countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Most notably, a shift in upstream countries towards using water for hydropower generation has upset the balance for areas needing irrigation water. The water administration agencies of the five countries urgently need to come up with a sustainable water management framework that favours socio-economic development and a stable water supply without ignoring the ecological needs and priorities required to offset the environmental catastrophe caused by previous practices.

To conclude, unsustainable use of water resources in Uzbekistan since the mid-20th century, carried out as a part of a larger Aral Sea basin development plan, has caused irreversible damage in terms of water quality and ecosystem degradation. The damage has rendered many soil and water resources unusable, seriously threatening the livelihoods of Uzbeks and leading to major population movements. Although environmental protection and sustainable socio-economic development remain priorities in the national agenda, the sheer scale of the problems, combined with economic difficulties, leaves the government short of solutions. Transboundary water resources, long the lifeline of extensive irrigation in Uzbekistan, now pose quantity and quality challenges due to rampant pollution and changing priorities in upstream countries. Development of national plans and establishment of regional cooperation, along with international assistance, are necessary to assure sustainable development while reversing environmental damage, to the extent possible.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Institute of Water Problems, Academy of Sciences. 2008. Uzbekistan Case Study Report. (Draft.)

External Resources

The United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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