The Water Wars Are Coming

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Water scarcity is omnipresent in the developing world. Today, 768 million people lack access to safe drinking water worldwide. And in Central Asia, a growing population and water-hungry resource extraction industries have made the problem even worse.

The balance of resources in Central Asia is far from a happy one. The region is divided into water-rich upstream states, and water-poor downstream ones, and the division leads to conflict and tit-for-tat exchanges, in which water is used for leverage. Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, are currently toying with the idea of cutting water flow to semi-arid Uzbekistan, the nation with the region's largest population and standing army, after Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to the Kyrgyz city of Osh in April -- a move that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov warned could lead to full-blown war.

Water problems in the region aren't always a result of scarcity -- they're in part man made. They arise from crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure: Kyrgyzstan, for instance, loses a third of its water wealth through holes in decaying irrigation networks. To keep their produce from drying out, desperate Kyrgyz villagers set up handmade dams that divert local rivers -- a makeshift solution that leads to drought in downstream communities. In areas like the Tajik-Kyrgyz border region of Batken, violent clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers over irrigation water have become commonplace.

Central Asia's water conflicts are often perceived as local skirmishes of little significance to the rest of the world. But as the water levels in the region diminish, the anguish of dry spells will drive more and more people into conflict. A point of no return for this socio-ecological disaster is drawing near.

Above, a shepherd boy watches a herd of cows as he stands on a tree stump near Issyk Kul.

An extended gallery of these photos can be found at Creative Time Reports.  

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


Nearby dams have made safe drinking water difficult to find in Kyrgyzstan's Bakten province.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012

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Kurambaev Almaz, 69, lives with his wife more than 100 miles away from the nearest town in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province. Almaz travels by donkey into the mountains to find drinking water.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2008


Men stand next to a Volga car parked alongside a Soviet-era irrigation canal, in Kyrgyzstan's Talas province.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


A horse rider on a hill during a snowfall in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


Participants in the game ulak tartysh, which is played on holidays, leaving their villages. Ulak tartysh is a traditional Kyrgyz game played on horseback with the body of a dead goat.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


Men wash a car near the Naryn River, which flows into the Toktogul Reservoir. This riverbed was once filled with water.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


A young man in a tank helmet after playing a game of ulak tartysh.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


A quarry filled with water from melting snow in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


Ulak tartysh players leave their villages.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


Abay, 68, stands near an observation deck overlooking the Kambarata 1 hydropower plant. He works as a janitor, sweeping debris from the asphalt.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the irrigation system in Kyrgyzstan has fallen into decay.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


The Papan Reservoir, built in 1985, is intended to irrigate farmland in southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2013


Military officers guard the entrance to the Kambaratinsk Dam, on the Naryn River. The hydropower plant at the base of the dam, largely financed through a $2 billion Russian aid package, will have a capacity of approximately 1,900 megawatts.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012


A man walks across the ruined gutter of an irrigation canal.

Fyodor Savintsev/Salt Images, 2012

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