Water scarcity is a looming problem throughout the world, particularly affecting developing nations such as the Central Asian states. Approximately 884 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and the number of people affected by severe water stress could increase to over 3.9 billion by 2030. In Central Asia, obtaining an equitable division of the region’s major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, is a disputed issue that may lead to armed conflict. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the countries that control the rivers, both have plans to build hydroelectric dams, which will give them substantial influence over water resources in the region, to the potential detriment of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. With increasing water scarcity in Central Asia and the vacuum left by a lack of binding international law, the dam plans will make achieving the seventh UN Millennium Development Goal, ensuring widespread access to clean water, and realizing the objective of UN Resolution 64/292 on the right to water, increasingly difficult and may send the region into armed conflict. The effects of such a conflict could be devastating, leading to the contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Historically, the Central Asian states developed a standard for water and electricity exchange due to stringent Soviet resource-allocation policies. This arrangement controlled the potential effects that uneven water distribution would have on human security in the region. In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian states signed the Almaty Agreement, maintaining the Soviet allocation of water, which favored Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Under the agreement, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not have enough water for their planned development activities and are desperately in need of the dam projects.

Because the right to water is not a self-standing right in international human rights law, dam projects by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would not necessarily be in direct contravention to binding international obligations. The proposed dam projects will provide Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with a steady stream of urgently needed power. Despite this, Uzbek leadership, with Kazakh support, opposes the dam projects, arguing that they will disrupt water supplies in the two countries, negatively affecting their economies by reducing the amount of water they have for agriculture to export, and damaging the environment. If Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan move forward with their dam projects, achieving the seventh MDG to “halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015” will be nearly impossible. It will also challenge the goals set out in UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292, which promises “to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.” Though Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both agreed to the MDGs and voted for the General Assembly resolution, neither of these declarations is legally binding.

Despite the lack of binding international guarantees for the right to water, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan may reconsider moving forward with their dam projects because of the threat of war.  Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, stated that the dam projects could lead to war because of water’s importance to Uzbekistan’s agricultural exports, which make up a large percentage of the country’s foreign earnings. Water conflicts, or “water wars,” occur when a country controls the water resources of another, water-scarce, country and uses water as leverage over the country that does not control its own access to water. Human rights laws guaranteeing the right to water are not strong enough to adequately deter countries that may consider engaging in water wars. However, the humanitarian effects of water wars may trigger international legal obligations. Women and children in Central Asia are particularly in danger from water scarcity issues because much of the agricultural work falls on them. They are often responsible for transporting water to the home; thus, with increased water scarcity they will be spending much more time and energy transporting water. Additionally there is clear gender inequality regarding access to water, with rural women facing critical problems in this area. Despite the lack of binding international law on the right to water, by instating policies that will exacerbate water scarcity and lead to war, the Central Asian states are ignoring Article 14 of CEDAW and Article 24 of the CRC, which specifically protect the rights of women and children and their access to water resources.

The countries of Central Asia are victims of a post-Soviet lack of a coordinated management system, but these actions could likely hamper the goals set out in human rights declarations. Without stronger human rights laws governing access to water, the region is highly susceptible to water wars, certain countries and minorities are disproportionately affected, and water scarcity will get exponentially worse due to climate change and mismanagement of resources.