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Hydropolitics: A Ticking Time Bomb?

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

By Antonio Caroli & Alberto Perotti

Water is an increasingly competitive and excludable good and its importance will only continue to grow in the future. State competition for water has existed for all of human history and today’s trends should be no surprise considering population growth and changes in distribution and availability due to climate change. Hydropolitics is on the rise due to regionalization and resources competition in many countries; effects of this crisis will be region-shaping.

Lesotho: South Africa’s water tower

Lesotho, or Basutoland, is a small country in the south of the African continent, an independent enclave right in the middle of South Africa’s northern basin. Inhabited by over 2 million people and spanning over 30 thousand km squared, it is located within the Maloti mountains, in the Lesotho highlands. Its geography played an important role in limiting the British’s influence in the colonial period. While conflicts with the Boers and skirmishes with the British took place, they were mostly isolated and Lesotho became a protectorate in 1868 by diplomatic means. During the protectorate period Lesotho saw a noticeable population expansion, causing rapid population growth from just 50 thousand in 1845 to 970 thousand in 1966, when the British left the country.

This increase can be explained by the introduction of British sanitary and agricultural technology, and the abundant availability of freshwater to farmers and shepherds who could now produce more food than when they were limited to subsistence farming.

South Africa Strengthens its Grip

The Cape colony and its successors enjoyed limited leverage over the kingdom, but after decolonization the larger neighbor inevitably sought to take control of Lesotho’s water supply. Lesotho hosts the springs of many of the region’s prominent rivers (such as the Orange), but also experiences more than half of the region's annual rainfall.

Water-hungry South Africa started envisioning large infrastructure projects in Lesotho territory already in the 1970’s, when the growing population and industries of the hinterland started to be a drain on the Vaal’s limited water flow and hydroelectric potential. This was possible mostly without external help thanks to the advanced construction capabilities when compared to other contemporary African countries. However, the projects saw pushback from Basutoland’s government, which depended on the larger neighbor but feared its influence and a loss of sovereignty over the country’s water sources. A solution was needed.
In December 1985, the South Africans established cross-border control on all movements of goods and people, essentially blockading the country. The subsequent economic woes undermined Lesotho President Jonhatan’s leadership, who was ousted a month later by a pro-South Africa general. Just nine months later, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Treaty was signed. The abolition of Apartheid did not change the predatory relation, with another military occupation in 1998 to stop coup rumors.

The project has since completed phase 1, costing a total of 8 billion dollars, in which two massive dams with a collective 3 billion cubic meters of water capacity were built. New dams have begun construction this year as part of phase 2; and 2 more dams are expected to be built.
The projects had profound effects on the economic, social and demographic situation in Lesotho: the areas now submerged were settled by numerous villages of farmers and shepherds, who had to move to higher, less fertile land. Many people now struggle to find steady supplies of clean water, wood for heating, and the jobs promised by the government in the fishing, tourism and services sectors have yet to materialize.

South Africa’s need for water and electricity supply has severely degraded Lesotho’s sovereignty, and even the main benefit of the project, the royalties that would be paid for the supply, have significantly lost value since treaties regulating the payments did not consider inflation and changes in costs, crippling Basutoland’s financial situation. Today over half of the country lives under the poverty line, and it is one of the most food insecure regions in the world. The population of 2 million is relatively large for a small African country, and it is highly dissatisfied with the corrupt political class that allowed such far-reaching disasters. The social situation is deteriorating, with frequent protests and correlated violent police crackdowns.

Stability Woes

South Africa has a strong grip on the country for now, but humanitarian crisis and state collapse are possible if the post-Apartheid consensus is rejected, or if the international order stops supporting the underdeveloped nation through trade, investment, and humanitarian aid.

Current trends on social cohesion, economic disparity and state effectiveness in the wider Sub-Saharan region are severely worsening, and a state collapse triggered by problems in water / hydroelectric security and supply of a major regional actor like South Africa could lead to a domino effect involving the whole continent. For example, South Africa leads a monetary union with Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland, countries whose stability is already questionable and would be the first to falter if economic or political conditions deteriorate meaningfully in South Africa. Other neighbors like Mozambique (which relies on South Africa for 29,27% of its imports), Zimbabwe (49,31%), Zambia (30.78%) and Malawi (20.56%) would also be at serious risk.
Africa could be destabilized beyond this region if mass migrations and tribal conflicts break out due to a decrease in humanitarian aid and food imports.

Even if a potential crisis in Lesotho remained local and isolated, but water and hydro-electric power supply ceased, it is estimated that the region of Johannesburg alone would see losses up to 11% of its GDP and 1 million jobs (almost 5% of the national working population). There would be an interruption of transportation of minerals from the gold and diamond mines in the North; electricity and water rationing; and potential disaster if the dams were to be damaged.
Lesotho is South Africa’s water tower, and it will be for the time being, but this reliance is dangerously unstable due to increasing tribalism, degrading infrastructure, economic slowdown and a potential step back from globalization seen in recent years, all of which are likely to destabilize the region over next few decades.

Central Asia

Central Asia is warming faster than the rest of the world. Glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate, and deserts have advanced by more than 100 km over the past 35 years Water is undoubtedly Central Asia's most vital resource, being critical for agriculture, which feeds and employs the region's primarily rural population, as well as hydropower facilities, which generate energy for both domestic use and exports. As this resource is at jeopardy, tensions over water and energy have contributed to Central Asia's already unsettled political atmosphere, raising concerns over a possible escalation of long-lasting frozen conflicts in what is one of the least politically integrated areas in the world.

Ferghana Valley

A landlocked plain in the midst of Central Asia, the Ferghana Valley is virtually cut off from the rest of the region by the surrounding mountain ranges. Politically, it is shared by Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Due to the valley’s plethora of hydro energy, the land has often been fairly unstable, being plagued by brutal conquests and ethnic conflicts throughout the centuries.
The situation has worsened since 1991, as the fall of the Soviet Union further destabilized the region; most efforts to establish a viable regional approach to manage natural resources have failed under the shortcomings of rising nationalist sentiment.
Most disputes involve water, mainly around the two main rivers of the region that both flow into the Aral Sea: the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Since 1991 The three downstream countries, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, are all heavily dependent on this water to sustain thirsty crops like cotton. The two upstream countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have had annual disputes regarding control of the precious resource.
While Tajikistan has been aiming to increase water usage to meet rising electricity needs, their lower, wealthier neighbors, Kyrgyzstan are all but willing to cede this key resource.


The bulk of the matter concerns the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. So far, the ensuing equilibrium has rarely produced sound and effective agreements through the years, but instead resulted in a political impasse marked by harsh rhetoric, reciprocal retaliations, and localized bloodshed. The Uzbeks hold a significant demographic and economic advantage, outnumbering their neighbors more than fivefold and enjoying a far more developed industrial sector; nevertheless, from a geographical standpoint Kyrgyzstan is the dominant actor, maintaining control over most of the water sources in the valley's downstream Uzbek section. Indeed, the existence of numerous, massive stream-control facilities have enabled it to play a strong role in the area.
An important step towards the current scenario happened in 1920s, when the newly formed Soviet Union carried out its border-drawing policy in the area, cutting local rivers in two sections: giving the headwaters belonging to the newly established Kyrgyz ASSR (later, Kyrgyz SSR) and the tail-ends or main courses to the Uzbek SSR. The former’s control on river flow existed only on a formal basis, as a thriving cotton industry in Uzbekistan transferred the nation into the agricultural powerhouse in the region, dramatically increasing its power and population over the years. Through mediation or impositions, the central government of Moscow has always been able to handle resentment from the Kyrgyz side, even when Ferghana Valley had practically fallen under total Uzbek control. Nonetheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union laid the basis for new tensions, as the Soviet-era scheme of water management was reversed, with the two countries trying to maximize their own resources.

Following the 1999 Tashkent bomb attacks, which Uzbek government blamed on Islamic terrorists originating from Kyrgysztan, the Uzbekistan decided to unilaterally erect a fence in disputed territory, in an attempt to finally mark the boundary between the two neighbours. The move triggered economic hardships among the poor, rural communities of the valley, and it later became a key element in the struggle between the pro-Uzbek Kyrgyz government of that time and the nationalist opposition, ultimately leading up to the former being overthrown during the 2005 Tulip revolution.


Fossil energy has also played a key role: once among the largest suppliers of fuel and electricity to its downstream neighbors, gas production in Uzbekistan has been sliding for several years, while almost all exports are bound for China. This has forced the water-rich nations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to divert water supplies to hydroelectric dams in order to produce electricity previously received from Uzbekistan.
In an attempt to counter power shortages during the coldest months of the year, the Tajik government has set its sights on a colossal dam project in the south of the country. Construction of the dam dates back to 1976, but it was never completed due to its controversial state, natural disasters damaging parts of it, and lack of management. However in 2017, the project was restarted drawing renewed complaints from neighboring Uzbekistan, further damaging the already bitter relations between the two countries.
With an impressive energy output potential, the Rogun Dam has become pivotal for the Tajik government to retain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The president himself fostered renewed national sentiment inspired by the project and in opposition to neighboring “rivals”, such as Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan and the wider region are climate-sensitive. USAID has predicted that a rise in temperatures of between 2 and 5 degrees fahrenheit (which they see as likely) will probably lead to a reduction in water available for drinking, agriculture, and electricity generation. The melting of permafrost in higher countries such as Tajikistan is also likely, leading to floods and changes in river flows.

Kyrgyzstan -Tajikistan

Perhaps the situation of greatest concern has been the border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While the boundary between the two countries is more than 970 kilometers long, roughly 504 kilometers have been delineated.

Tensions have risen especially in the northern Tajik district of Isfara and in Vorukh, a 30,000-person enclave in the heart of Kyrgyzstan. One of the grounds of tension is the Golovnoy water intake facility, which divides a river flowing northward along its natural course, including areas alternately claimed by Kyrgyz and Tajik villages until entering Tajikistan. As both countries have claimed control of the infrastructure, armed clashes over this disagreement have become more frequent, with the latest one leaving 100 dead on both sides, and triggering the displacement of more than 130,000 Kyrgyz civilians.

Foreign Powers

The Russian army's dismal performance in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian forces' recent gains in recovering lost territory, have cast doubt on Russia’s prowess as a major military power or as Eurasia's sheriff. Two major issues are eroding Russia's standing as a regional security power.
First, Russia was nowhere to be seen in the most recent violent military incident—the border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which is surprising given Russia's long history of regional peacekeeping in post-Soviet states.
Second, through trade, seasonal labor, and remittances, all Central Asian countries rely significantly on Russia to keep their feeble economies alive.
Russia's decision to invade Ukraine resulted in broad Western and international sanctions and export prohibitions, squeezing the Russian economy and, by implication, Central Asian economies.
So far, Central Asian economies have shown surprising resilience, but they still face inflation and rising energy and food prices, which they can blame on the Kremlin. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the most migrant-dependent countries in the world, with remittances accounting for one third and one quarter of GDP, respectively. According to the World Bank, as Russia's economy suffers from sanctions, remittances to Kyrgyzstan will plummet by 33% and to Tajikistan by 22%. Remittances to Uzbekistan – the most economically independent country among the three – which account for around one tenth of the country's GDP, are expected to plummet by 21%. As Western sanctions are expected to continue to intensify,the economic downsides will be enormous.
When it comes to lasting influence in the region, long-term trends point to the other giant neighbor of Central Asia: China. The country has already displaced Russia economically, with Russia-Central Asia commerce accounting for just two-thirds of China's total. Furthermore, the Asian giant is fast becoming a key arms supplier and strategic partner in the area, though it is still a long way from overtaking Moscow.
As Tajikistan has emerged as an odd buffer between Afghanistan's instability and Xinjiang, where China has jailed an estimated 1.8 million Uighurs in a campaign often referred to as cultural genocide, Beijing has built and gained control of a number of military sites along the sensitive Tajik-Afghan border.

Furthermore, as Tajik forces advanced amidst the latest border clashes, China announced a pledge with regard to Kyrgyzstan, challenging Russia's long-standing position as Central Asian border defender.

Russia, on the contrary, has recently earned the reputation that Putin sided with Tajikistan rather than acting as an unbiased mediator between two members of his military alliance, especially after the Kremlin announced that it was awarding the veteran Tajik dictator, Emomali Rahmon, a prestigious state award for his contribution to "regional stability and security."

Water is a vital resource around the world, and as climate change and regional conflicts continue to worsen, hydropolitics will be a centerpiece of international relations.



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