With more than half of the world's population under the age of 35, there are currently more young people around the globe than ever before. Nowhere is this more the case than in developing countries, which make up 90% of the global youth population, and particularly in Central Asian states. Central Asian states are on the list of developing countries with an increasing demographic share of youth in the general population. As of 2020, the total population of the four countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) was 68.46 million, of which youth comprised 16.55 million or 24, 1% of the total population (see figure 1). Within this “young” region, involving youth voices in development efforts in the water sector has become crucial.
Central Asia is extremely prone to climate-related conflict risk, with regional demands for water exceeding accessible supplies. From the recent violent clashes between the Kyrgyz and Tajik military in 2021 over a sluice in the Kyrgyz Ak-Sai village, to the Uzbek–Kyrgyz border clashes in 2016, worrying examples of escalating conflicts due to water scarcity abound in the region. Understanding, learning from, and enhancing water diplomacy processes is essential for countries in Central Asia to remedy these conflicts.
Currently, transboundary water cooperation and dialogue in the region take place within the remit of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), established in 1992 on the initiative of the Heads of the Central Asian States for the purpose of improving the social and economic ecological situation in the basin of the Aral Sea. Despite some positive developments in recent years, cooperation continues to take place mostly on a bilateral, rather than multilateral, basis, exacerbating already significant environmental and socioeconomic challenges faced by states in the region.
As such, forward thinking and innovative ways to approach local, regional and international cooperation are deeply needed. Open discussion of the issues shaping our water resources today and strong citizen participation in decision-making are key to fostering good governance and a climate of accountability and transparency which can stimulate cooperative action and political commitment. Promoting a culture of consultation and increasing participative capacities will help to deliver benefits in all areas, including collaborative water management.
The second Youth Basin Dialogue – Syr Darya River
During the training and workshops of the second Youth Basin Dialogue – Syr Darya River, speakers helped participants build up awareness about the benefits of transboundary water cooperation.
One of the most important and useful aspects of these sessions was being introduced to the Blue Peace Index (BPI). The BPI helped us to structure, collect and assess information from the Syr Darya river basin and allowed us to assess how well riparian countries are cooperating in the basin, highlighting actionable solutions on the issues that need to be solved. The BPI assesses management of shared water resources across five pillars:
Policy and legal frameworks;
Institutional arrangements and participation;
Water management instruments;
Infrastructure and financing;
Across teams, the BPI was seen as an effective tool due to its scientific approach to understanding transboundary dynamics in water management. Indeed it helped all teams clarify cooperation issues in the Syr Darya river basin.
Throughout this research process, my group faced challenges related to data availability for each country, as not all the Central Asian countries have the same level of data transparency, which can exacerbate differences across countries in the index.
Next steps: improving international cooperation
148 countries share at least one transboundary river basin . That’s why water cooperation is key to security, poverty eradication, social equity and gender equality. Based on our research, concrete steps can be taken regionally to improve cooperation across borders, such as:
Providing efficient instruments and mechanisms for Integrated Water Resources Management and infrastructure management on the basis of best international practices and experience;
Supporting the establishment of regional inter-sectoral networks based on fair and transparent sharing of costs and benefits;
Supporting the information exchange regarding the experiences of Central Asian countries in the sphere of regional management of water resources.
The benefits of realising these steps and strengthening transboundary water management are clear and include better and fairer access to water and other basic services such as energy, and generally improved conditions for sustainable growth, leading overall to more trust and stability in the region.
These unforgettable days in Tajikistan helped me to meet new friends from different countries in Central Asia, to communicate with experienced trainers, and to get rid of cultural and geographical barriers and stereotypes. I particularly enjoyed the collaboration and teamwork with other participants from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as we shared our experiences, thoughts and possible ways of contributing to water security in Central Asia throughout the dialogue. It clearly brought to the fore that water, a vital resource unlike any other, knows no borders, and that cooperation in our region and inclusion of youth in water policy must also be done on just such a basis of collaboration and teamwork.