Endangered Fish Species in the Amu Darya Basin May Disappear Due to Hydropower Plants

The 14th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals is being held this week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The international environmental coalition Rivers Without Boundaries is calling on conference participants to pay serious attention to how the rampant construction of dams and reservoirs across Central Asia is leading to population declines and the complete extinction of endangered (red-listed) species. 

Rivers Without Boundaries experts point to the long-suffering Amu Darya river basin as an example: the alteration of its flow as a result of reservoirs and dams that change the hydrological regime and block fish migration routes was the most important reason for the Convention on Migratory Species to take under its protection the large Amu Darya sturgeon, a unique sturgeon adapted to live in the fast and turbid waters of the Vakhsh, Pyandj and Amu Darya. Its close relative, the Syr Darya sturgeon, is already considered extinct by most experts, due to the creation of numerous dams and reservoirs on the Syr Darya and its tributaries. 

Nevertheless, as experts from the Rivers Without Boundaries coalition emphasize, the recent World Bank assessment of the environmental impact of the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant in the Amu Darya basin does not consider the state of populations and the possible impact of changes in river flow on rare species of fish in the lower Vakhsh and the Amu Darya itself. 

Another example cited by ecologists is the Aral salmon (listed in the Red Book of Tajikistan), which once migrated along the Amu Darya and the Vakhsh, but since the creation of the Tuyamuyun hydro system and the Vakhsh group of hydropower plants has now completely disappeared from the area. Scientists found a last grouping of Aral salmon in the Nurek reservoir, but this too is likely to disappear as a result of the construction of the Rogun hydropower station upstream, as this will simply leave the salmon with no rivers in which to spawn. 

“Despite the requirements of national legislation regarding environmental impact assessment and protection of rare species, in all Central Asian countries, rivers – as well as their valleys, and the fauna and flora that depend on their ecological health – are massively sacrificed to the implementation of poorly justified hydraulic engineering projects,” points out Evgeny Simonov, the international coordinator for Rivers Without Boundaries. “To date, when designing and building most dams throughout the region, no one is seriously trying to prevent damage to populations of rare migratory species.” 

“Refusal to consider the potential impacts of hydropower plants on rare migratory species and natural ecosystems is not only a gross violation of international environmental conventions, but also often contradicts the environmental policy of those development banks that are going to lend money to build reservoirs,” emphasizes Alexander Kolotov, Central Asia coordinator of the Rivers Without Boundaries environmental coalition. “We hope that the discussions during the conference in Samarkand will lead to the introduction of more responsible approaches to the selection of sites for energy facilities, especially dammed hydroelectric power stations, as the most dangerous hydraulic structures for nature.” 

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals was signed in 1979 in Bonn, Germany. It entered into force in 1983. One hundred and thirty-three countries are members of the Convention. The Bonn Convention is designed to unite the states of the ranges through which migratory species pass and to lay the legal basis for internationally agreed measures to conserve species throughout their migratory range. In addition to migratory birds, the Bonn Convention protects four species of sturgeon, as well as many mammals, such as the snow leopard and Bukhara deer.

Alexander Kolotov is the director of the Rivers Without Boundaries Public Fund in Almaty, and the Central Asia region coordinator of the Rivers Without Boundaries International Coalition.