As outlined in a press release on the EDB website, in the summer of 2023, Central Asia was faced once again with water shortages, which have a significant impact on agriculture. The sector relies on irrigation, which consumes up to 80% of available water, and has a poor track record with regard to the efficient use of water resources. The irrigation infrastructure is over 50 years old. More than half of all irrigated land has become salinized, and 40% of water is lost through irrigation canals. A new Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) study entitled “Efficient Irrigation and Water Conservation in Central Asia” outlines ten practical steps for preserving irrigated land potential and promoting water conservation. The list includes four recommendations for adoption at a regional level and six at a national level. The measures are designed to save enough water each year to support sustainable development. Implementing the measures will require collaboration between governments, farmers and multilateral development institutions. The need for urgent action is intensified by the anticipated reduction in the flow of the Amu Darya River.
Water deficit is a key structural constraint to socio-economic development in Central Asia. This region is among the most vulnerable to climate change, with temperatures rising at a faster rate than the global average. Periods of drought and low water are becoming more frequent, and the hydrological patterns of rivers and groundwater supplies are undergoing change. Glacier areas have been diminishing rapidly, with a 30% decrease over the last 50 years. Climate change is leading to reduced river flows at a time when the region’s demand for water is growing rapidly.
The primary solution to the water deficit lies in improving irrigation practices. Agriculture in Central Asia is the largest consumer of water, with irrigation accounting for 100.4 km3 of the total 127.3 km3 (80%) of water used in the region in 2020. Historically, irrigation has played a vital role in developing agriculture and ensuring food security in the region. Central Asia boasts 10.1 million hectares of irrigated land, representing approximately 2.9% of the world’s total. This irrigated land generates nearly 66% of the region’s gross agricultural output in terms of value.
However, Central Asia’s irrigation infrastructure is highly degraded and technically inadequate. It lacks the equipment needed for metering and distributing water for irrigation and controlling its use in the field. The average age of the irrigation infrastructure is over 50 years. Up to half of irrigated land is salinized. Water use in agriculture is inefficient, with 40% of water lost in the irrigation canal system.
A commitment to conserving water appears to be the only solution to protecting the potential of irrigated land and food security in Central Asia. This shift in approach is imperative not only because of climate change and escalating water demand, but also to mitigate the anticipated decrease in the flow of the Amu Darya River from Afghanistan. By 2028, the combined effects of climate change, low-water periods and the commissioning of the Kosh-Tepa Canal in Afghanistan will result in an acute and chronic water shortage, estimated by EDB analysts to be between 5 and 12 km3.
The EDB is recommending ten practical steps to safeguard irrigated land potential and promote efficient water consumption in Central Asia. Implementing these measures will prepare the region for the significant changes in water flow expected in the Aral Sea basin by 2028 and help offset worsening water shortages.
A deserted ship in the man-made desert, former Aral Sea
- First and foremost, the region requires a consolidated regional approach. One of the most effective solutions would be to create an International Water and Energy Consortium for Central Asia (IWEC CA). This consortium would focus on irrigation and energy projects and facilitate interaction between multilateral development banks (MDBs) and their dialogue with the region’s countries.
- Consortia could also be established to implement significant investment projects, such as large water facilities. MDBs could collaborate to help overcome the challenge of attracting investment in irrigation. MDBs in the region could act as financial operators, jointly implementing complex projects, mobilising additional financial resources and providing effective financial support for complex initiatives.
- It would be highly beneficial to create a regional cluster to manufacture and maintain modern irrigation equipment. Together, the countries of Central Asia account for the fifth largest irrigated landmass globally after China, India, the U.S. and Pakistan, making it a sizeable irrigation equipment market worth U$140–320 million, or 4% to 8% of the global market.
- Central Asian countries should establish a position on greater cooperation with Afghanistan. A partnership scheme could be developed based on existing water management mechanisms in Central Asia, including organizations such as the IFAS and other regional bodies involved in transboundary water resource management. The transition to water conservation should be financially secure and requires institutional solutions.
- Developing water and irrigation systems in Central Asia requires significant investment, including through public-private partnerships (PPP). Global experience, set out in the report’s many PPP case studies, suggests that this is an effective form of financing. In addition to government funding, MDBs’ financial resources play a crucial role in financing such projects.
- Effective water accounting on inter-farm canals and farms, involving water user associations (WUAs), is crucial. Strengthening the institutional and legal status of WUAs would increase their accountability and obligations regarding water use, paving the way for a system of paid water supply services for farms.
- The gradual introduction of investment deductions in tariffs would help state-financed water companies to invest in the construction, upgrading and renovation of irrigation systems. The limited availability of water and the constraints of extensive irrigated farming in Central Asia increase the importance of adopting industrialized agricultural technologies.
- To counteract the widespread salinization of irrigated land, soil conditions can be improved by rearranging irrigation and drainage systems. For example, on-farm earth canals could be transformed into flume canals, and existing canals could be replaced with a system of pipelines to transport water to the fields. This would reduce filtration losses by a factor of three to four.
- Introducing digital technologies throughout the water sector would enable efficient water distribution and accurate water metering, and facilitate the transition to a system of paid water supply services for farms. Digital water metering technologies are estimated to reduce water losses by 12% to 15% annually. Remote satellite diagnostics are also recommended as a means of establishing a permanent system for monitoring irrigated land and soil salinization.
- Adopting state-of-the-art irrigation, laser levelling and crop cultivation technologies region-wide would be an important step forward. Quality levelling allows for the implementation of new mechanised and water-saving furrow irrigation technologies. Yields on a sloped field under furrow irrigation rise significantly, and a reduction in annual water consumption of between 20% and 30% can be achieved.