World Environment Day and Central Asia Environmental Diplomacy

The theme of this World Environment Day is raise your voice, don’t raise sea levels. For Central Asian Region it is more ‘raise the cooperation, don’t make the region a desert’. World Environment Day is celebrated on June 05 every year across the globe to stimulate awareness on environmental issues. The call of the Environment Day which was adopted during first UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972 may rekindle the hope of environmental diplomacy in the most fragile region like Central Asia to address common environmental challenges. With intrinsically transboundary nature of environmental challenges-water security, climate change induced disasters, ice capped mountain and its ecology, saving endangered species like snow leopard, countries without resorting to environmental diplomacy unilateral measures will be ineffective.

Two decades have passed but a structured process of environmental diplomacy is missing in Central Asian Region since Independence. All countries have either ratified or signed multilateral environmental agreement or participate in discussions. However, a regional common position has never been conveyed at UN or such global conferences. A regional bloc which is yet to evolved politically, the Central Asian countries have potential to address both economic and environmental challenges cooperatively.

A recent development requires discussion to predict the future of cooperative effort within the region on this Environment Day. The 1997 UN Convention on Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses (Watercourse Convention), passed in the UN General Assembly, is going to be operational. Despite much effort, this convention was almost dead for more than a decade with snail’s pace ratification by countries. When Viet Nam acceded the Convention as 35th state on May 19, 2014, the Convention is destined to enter into force by 17 August 2014.

A similar Convention is 1992 UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention). Despite its origin as a regional treaty, the agreement is open to accession by states outside the UNECE region. After May 19, 2014, there will be two treaties on shared freshwater resources. If the 1997 Watercourse Convention becomes law, what would be the implication to transboundary rivers such as Amu Darya and Syr Darya in the region?

Article 5 of the Watercourse Convention states that ‘Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilise an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner’. While allowing riparian states to utilise their waters in an equitable and reasonable manner, the Convention says in Article 7 that ‘Watercourse States shall, in utilising an international watercourse in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse States.’

The Upper riparian Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have potential possible hydropower construction plan. Even, the existing hydropower plants have either holding back the river water or releasing water at winter which created problem in down streams. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan pays for Aral disaster, while Uzbekistan is withdrawing for its cotton farming. This has stressed the relation between countries with delicate political ramifications for the riparian countries. In this respect Article 7 says ‘Where significant harm nevertheless is caused to another watercourse State, the States whose use causes such harm shall, in the absence of agreement to such use, take all appropriate measures, having due regard for the provisions of Articles 5 and 6, in consultation with the affected State, to eliminate or mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.’

Will lower riparian countries of Syr Darya ask for compensation if there is an unwarranted damage caused by Toktogul reservoir on Naryn River? Will Kyrgyzstan be able to accept or pay the compensation in future? It will not be surprising to see Uzbekistan resorting to International Court of Justice to resolve the water problem in future. Also more important that upper riparian countries must benefit by proper utilisation of shared water. Before this political face off arises, riparian countries must sit down for a long-term mutual negotiated beneficial outcome.

Article 11 of the Convention says: “Watercourse States shall exchange information and consult each other and, if necessary, negotiate on the possible effects of planned measures on the condition of an international watercourse.” The Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) was established in 1992 as a regional structure to address the complexity of water and energy on transboundary rivers. Has it been effective? Will it be renewed by the members with inserting climate change impacts into it with the recent development?

According to UNECE, «the two Conventions are fully compatible and complementary». The 1997 Watercourses Convention details factors for equitable and reasonable water resources utilization while the 1992 Water Convention prescribes the content of transboundary water agreements and the tasks of joint institutions for transboundary water cooperation. However, It is always the 1992 Water Convention will be in advantage due to possibilities of EU financial backing. However, only Uzbekistan has signed and ratified both the treaties. It is not due to compatibility of the treaties but as a lower riparian country, it needs international regime to its side. Kazakhstan has only party to the 1992 Convention.

Why the other Central Asian Countries have not signed both the treaties? The history says that when the Watercourse Convention was put to vote in General Assembly in 1997, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were absent, Uzbekistan abstained and only Kazakhstan supported. It was hardly echoed any interventions from representatives of such countries in either Plenary or committees.

Decades have passed. Mute spectators in global/regional forum is not the answer. Neither unilateral positioning of who is at fault. Delaying or inactive and ad hoc tactics are not resolving growing environmental threats to the region. The Countries and region have been intertwined with several global environmental dialogue/negotiations/agreements from climate change to species conservation. A section of trained negotiators needs to be evolved by the countries to get the best possible negotiated outcome for the region. Raise your voice, let the region gives a chance to environmental diplomacy to begin with on this Environment Day.


Dr Avilash Roul, (Ph.D)

Senior Fellow (Water, Energy and Environment), SSPC, India.

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