The awareness of the need for regional cross-border water cooperation in Central Asia has substantially increased in recent years. Its complexity requires smart solutions and policies both at national and regional levels, said Head of Global Program Water at Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) Simon Zbinden in an interview with The Astana Times.
As part of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland (FDFA), SDC is responsible for official development assistance. Its activities are focused on fostering economic and national self-sufficiency, improving production conditions, finding solutions to environmental problems, and ensuring better access to education and healthcare for socially vulnerable groups.
Since 2014, SCD has supported the Blue Peace Central Asia (BPCA) initiative. The Swiss development program, which was launched in 2010, is aimed at promoting transboundary water management between Central Asian countries. The transformation of water from a potential source of conflict into a strong instrument of cooperation and peace is at the core of the BPCA mandate.
“BPCA supports innovative technical solutions and facilitates dialogue among water experts from Central Asian countries. With regional universities and training centers, for example, the Almaty-based German-Kazakh University, it provides training for young people, building the next generation of water professionals,” said Zbinden.
“In terms of water diplomacy, the program seeks to bring high-level officials together to discuss basin-level water management. Among other stakeholders, the program works with regional organizations such as the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC),” he added.
Located in the Kazakh city of Almaty, CAREC headquarters also serves as a dialogue platform for BPCA.
In 2024, Kazakhstan will take over the presidency of IFAS. In Zbinden’s opinion, “the country can play a pivotal role in promoting regional water cooperation.”
“Water connects Central Asian countries. The challenges lie in the complexity of water issues, as they are interconnected with other sectors, including food and agriculture, energy, and environment,” he said.
Astana promotes development assistance projects in Central Asia and Afghanistan through the Kazakhstan Agency for International Development (KazAID), which was established in December 2020. Given the SDC’s research capacity and extensive cooperation, as well as KazAID’s ongoing activities inside the region, the partnership between the two structures can bring good prospects for joint projects.
Zbinden emphasized the potential of bilateral interaction in this direction, saying that “SDC welcomes KazAID’s and other stakeholders’ engagement in promoting transboundary water management in Central Asia.”
“In this regard, SDC has invited KAZAID experts to Switzerland for an exchange of views,” noted Zbinden.
During the visit, it is also planned to organize meetings with humanitarian organizations and multilateral institutions in Geneva.
“We support Central Asian countries in drawing the attention of the international community to the growing water challenges in the region,” said Zbinden.
He highlighted the support provided by Switzerland to Central Asian countries at the United Nations (UN) Water Conference this March in New York. The Water Action Agenda was the key outcome of the conference, which was held for the first time in 50 years. It was composed of voluntary commitments from dozens of governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations towards achieving the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and other water-related targets.
A key preparatory event for the UN Conference for Central Asia was the Dushanbe Water Process. The platform tracks the progress of voluntary commitments. Tajik government offers a venue and logistical support to ensure the Water Action Agenda is embedded in the next Dushanbe Conferences up until 2028.
For Central Asian states, as well as for Switzerland, it is important to cooperate on international platforms on sustainability and climate initiatives to draw the attention of the international community to growing environmental problems.
“Climate change alters the water cycle in Central Asian states as it does in Switzerland. Water management is increasingly challenging in both regions. As such, we have a common interest – we are both interested in appropriate solutions and their effective adaptation,” said Zbinden.
Since the 1960s, the level of the Aral Sea has decreased rapidly due to the withdrawal of water for irrigation from the main feeding rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Situated on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Central Asian once-large salt lake split into two isolated reservoirs – the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea in 1989.
The water level of the North Aral Sea has risen, and its salinity has decreased after the Kazakh government initiated the building of Dike Kokaral in 2003, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea.
Kazakhstan is now working closely with the World Bank to maintain the ecosystem and rebuild the northern half of the sea. The country’s efforts are aimed at implementing nature-based solutions, particularly by planting Saksaul trees to help keep moisture in the soil.