Gradual temperature increases in the region, together with a decrease in the average rainfall has reduced the availability of water in the Ferghana Valley. Global climate change is expected to cause further resource depletion in the region.
Living conditions across the valley decreased sharply as the previous Soviet system of collective farming collapsed. In turn, this has triggered a new competition for resources, especially water and land.
Disagreements over resources have resulted in a series of minor and major clashes around the predominant ethnic enclaves, particularly between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions of Kyrgyzstan. These clashes have claimed more than 2,000 lives. Interstate tensions have also transpired between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan when guards exchanged fire along the border of the two countries, seriously injuring one guard. A major humanitarian crisis ensued when approximately 100,000 to 300,000 refugees, predominantly of Uzbek ethnic origin, were attempting to flee to Uzbekistan.
Interethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley, the most populous region in Central Asia, centre primarily on access to natural resources, especially water and land. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are highly interdependent concerning their water and energy, and this is a significant, although not exclusive, cause of international disputes and interethnic tensions in the area (Baker, 2011). The region is also seen as an extremely sensitive border area with a high level of militarization. In more recent years, this militarization has seemingly been legitimised by a security discourse which perceives the valley to be a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalist organisations (Ismailbekova, 2012).
Multi-dimensional causes of the problem
The root cause of the problem is multi-dimensional and inherently linked to the break-up of the USSR. On the one hand, in the post-Soviet sphere, the three newly independent states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan emphasised their newly found national identities whilst understating their diverse multi-ethnic foundations. On the other hand, living conditions across the valley decreased sharply as the previous system of Soviet collective farming collapsed. In turn, this has triggered a new competition for resources and livelihoods (Recknagel, 2010). Since 1991, the region has been divided between the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In terms of population density, 51% of Kyrgyzstan’s population is located in the three provinces of Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken. 31% of Tajikistan’s population is found in the Sughd province and 27% of Uzbekistan’s population is situated in the three provinces of Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan (IRIN, 2015).
Water concerns in the Ferghana Valley
As population has increased within the Ferghana Valley, so too has water consumption. In the same period, temperatures have risen and average rainfall has decreased (Baker, 2011). Indeed, the average regional surface temperature has increased by an estimated 0.5°C over the past 30 years, thus reducing net water in the region (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2013). Global climate change is set to compound these issues, heightening the threat of resource depletion, competition and conflict. Water concerns in the valley primarily relate to the availability and access to clean water, but also include fears pertaining to rising groundwater and water logging. Increasingly, electricity and agricultural sectors are competing against one another, as there is a twofold demand for electrical production and agricultural irrigation (Baker, 2011). Furthermore, complicated territorial divisions present a challenge to accessing water for drinking purposes and irrigation.
New collective identities and social unrest
Additional fears are related to wider issues pertaining to territorialization and the emergence of new collective identities in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Starr, 2011). The result of unclear border definitions has seen a constant series of minor and major clashes around the predominant ethnic enclaves. Due to these factors, the region is especially vulnerable to internal and external provocation and environmental pressures. In June 2010, an estimated 200 people were killed and many more injured during violent clashes in Osh and Jalal-Abad. The violence was catalysed by a combination of ethnic tensions, an economic slump and political discontent following the ousting of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. A major humanitarian crisis ensured with between 100,000 and 300,000 refugees, predominantly of Uzbek ethnic origin, attempting to flee to Uzbekistan (Baker, 2011). In more recent years, tensions have been identified around the Uzbek area of Sokh, inside Kyrgyzstan. In 2013, disagreements over resources boiled over leading to ethnic clashes. Previously, in September 2012, a number of Tajik and Uzbek guards exchanged gunfire along the border of the two countries, severely injuring one Uzbek guard (Belafatti, 2014).
In terms of conflict resolution, the Ferghana Valley Development Programme (FVDP) established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was the first project to approach conflict prevention in the region, stressing regional dialogue, the maintenance of inter-ethnic peace and improved community relations. The international community has a modest record of identifying and resolving common problems and interests within the region (Starr, 2011). In November 2010, Saferworld, Foundation for Tolerance International (FTI) and the Association for Scientific and Technological Intelligentsia (ASTI) facilitated the first community security consultations and focus group discussions in parallel villages along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border aimed at improving trust (Saferworld, 2011). However, violent interethnic clashes which first erupted in 1990 and then again in 2010 in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions of Kyrgyzstan between the local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz underscore the long-term nature of the issues affecting the region. These clashes alone claimed more than 2000 lives (Rotar, 2012).
The conflict in the Ferghana Valley is multi-dimensional in nature and, although many actors are working in the region, a quick resolution seems unlikely.