Water security at SCO; The omnipresent Chinese facor

Central-AsiaThe Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its two-day summit in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, on Sep 11. SCO, an inter-governmental organization, founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001, has China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as its members.




Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan are observer states, while Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka are dialogue partners. The SCO has two permanent organs – the Secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent.


The SCO is seen as being dominated by Chinese interests and largely focussed on economic and security (or the "three evils" defined by China) issues. However, for the second successive year, Kazakhstan has sought to widen the agenda of the summit to include water security issues. This article examines the import of Kazakhstan's request.


SCO Summit 2014


The SCO Summit 2014 was the 13th SCO annual Summit and was presided over by the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. The summit saw several initiatives being proposed by both China and Russia. On the conclusion of the summit in Dushanbe, a communiqué was issued which stressed that conflicts and problems challenging the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should be resolved by peaceful means, including national dialogues and there was support for Afghani efforts at national reconciliation and reconstruction. The next SCO summit will be held in Russia's city of Ufa on July 9-10, 2015 along with the 7th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit


The Dushanbe Summit also formalised the legal, administrative and financial requirements for admitting new SCO members, during the Russian presidency. India has applied for full membership of the SCO after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj submitted a formal application. Pakistan and Iran also applied for SCO membership.


Kazakhstan's Proposal


At the SCO Summit 2014, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev raised the issue of water shortage which is threatening the stability and security of the region. He recommended the creation of a Water Committee (as suggested by Kazakhstan), and that it be recognised as a practical mechanism for addressing water security matters. This issue was previously raised in September 2013 during the SCO Summit at Bishkek, where again Nazarbayev had called upon the Central Asian leaders to address water sharing problems; particularly related to Amu and Syr daryas.


He had said Central Asian countries have to resolve their water disputes by themselves through an open dialogue in the region as it was becoming a national security problem. Nazarbayev said that SCO should become the platform for an open dialogue on the issue. The question of trans-boundary water management was also raised during Nazarbayev's visit to Beijing in April 2013. In January 2014, the Kazakhstan foreign ministry had issued a similar appeal urging other Central Asian nations to form a committee to solve water sharing issues through coordination of the fundamental principles of guaranteed use, protection and division of trans-boundary water resources.


While the thrust of the Kazakh proposal was for an understanding amongst the Central Asian countries on the legacy of water sharing problems within the SCO, it was understood that the proposal would not only involve Chinese leadership but also provide basis for engaging China as a stakeholder and an upper riparian state with respect to other water disputes in the region.


China and Hydro-hegemony


China's international borders are crossed by 40 major trans-boundary watercourses which puts China in a crucial position regarding water security for a number of downstream countries. Yet China has not signed any international legal instrument on Transboundary Rivers, specifically water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state. Even though China showcases several (more than 50) bilateral water agreements, none of them relate to water sharing or institutionalized cooperation on shared resources. Some accords are just commercial contracts to sell hydrological data to downstream nations.


China also follows the general principle that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the state where they are located and therefore it has "indisputable sovereignty" over the waters on its side of the international boundary. As a result, across its three major hydro-conflict areas of the Mekong, the Irtysh, and the Brahmaputra, China has been generally unwilling to discuss shared water rights and reluctant to share information concerning water levels, usage, or pollution.


China-Kazakh water Issues


More than 20 rivers of Kazakhstan originate from the territory of China; the major ones being Irtysh, Ili, Talas and Korgas. China's fast growing population in the western part is putting increasing acreage of land under cultivation and irrigation. Accordingly, the country has plans to increase water supplies in its north-western provinces from the current 555 billion cubic meters to 888 billion by 2030, thus reducing water flow to Kazakhstan from the Ili and Irtysh rivers, which supply Lake Balkhash. Because of the growth of intake in the upper catchment of the Ili River it is feared that Lake Balkhash might suffer the same fate as the Aral Sea.


According to experts, China's development plans for its northern and north-western regions, if completed, will threaten north Kazakhstan with drought. The environmentally focused non-governmental organization EcoSOS estimate that Kazakhstan could face an ecological disaster in the next 10–20 years if it fails to solve the issue of joint use of the Ili and Irtysh rivers with China.


The Kazakh-Chinese relations on the use of trans-boundary rivers, the main of which are Black Irtysh and Ili, until recently were governed by the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the use and protection of trans-boundary rivers signed Sep 12, 2001. However, this agreement does not contain any arrangements with respect to the volume of water intake by China and was viewed by experts as being one-sided and reflecting mainly Chinese interests. Even the latest agreements relate to preservation of quality of water resources of trans-boundary rivers (Feb 22, 2011, Beijing), and treaty on cooperation in the field of environmental protection (June 13, 2011, Astana).


In December 2012, negotiations with China turned sour after Beijing proposed a water division scheme according to the number of inhabitants living along the river in each country. Astana turned down the proposal. In September 2013, during the first state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kazakhstan an intergovernmental agreement on the joint management and operation of the combined waterworks "Dostyk" on Khorgos River was signed. Although Kazakhstan has made some progress in addressing trans-boundary water issues with China, main interstate agreement for water allocation along Transboundary Rivers remains elusive and critical.




Kazakhstan is attempting to leverage Chinese interests in investing in and developing Kazakh oil and copper resources as well as negative media attention and public opinion to make progress on water sharing issues with China. It also feels that by taking up this issue at a multi-lateral regional forum, the SCO, will provide more traction and urgency to the issue, both with China and other Central Asian countries.


India, given its concerns on Brahmaputra river, would sense an opportunity at the SCO in the coming years to join issue not only with the Central Asian countries but also Russia, in getting China to discuss water sharing issues outside the bilateral format and in a more fair and equitable manner. India would also be uniquely positioned not only to articulate its concerns on the Brahmaputra but also provide a perspective on Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-led initiatives on water cooperation with China.


(Monish Gulati is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


This article was published at South Asia Monitor.

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