What do we (not) know about water governance in Central Asia – and why?

The independence of Central Asian republics in 1991 had many consequences for water arrangements at transboundary, national and local levels. In a new article, Jenniver Sehring provides a critical review of the research on water governance reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She points at how the political economy of knowledge production impacts the academic discourse on water governance in Central Asia.

In a collective opinion article, members of IHE’s water governance department stressed that the politics of water governance is about the rules and practices that regulate distribution of water as much as about the distribution of voice and authority in these processes and about the distribution of knowledge and expertise. Following this understanding, when reviewing the academic literature on water governance in Central Asia, it is important to critically reflect which kind of knowledge is produced by whom, which aspects of water governance are over- or under-represented, and why this is so.

In a recent article, I review the academic literature on water governance in Central Asia (i.e. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). As I argue, the majority of literature focuses on either the transboundary or the local level while only few authors have focused on national water governance. A genuine focus on region-specific forms of water governance as well as on national politics is underrepresented in the literature – and I will explain this with the political economy of knowledge production. Here below, I summarise the main findings of the review.

In the continental climate of Central Asia, almost the total runoff of the major rivers is abstracted for human use (Credits: Zoi Environment Network 2010)

Transboundary level: regional conflict and/or cooperation?

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, previously national rivers and inter-republican canal systems became transboundary and the joint water-energy management system among the Central Asian republics stopped functioning. Consequently, many experts expected conflicts over water among the newly independent states. However, most researchers agree that cooperation has been prevailing over conflict. The broader narratives on regional water governance vary: the water-energy nexus and the attempts for a coordinated governance approach to balance different interests are often the focus of studies. Many studies look at water cooperation from an economic perspective, including with applying the benefit-sharing approach to Central Asia. However, they often leave aside political factors. For that reason another school focuses on power asymmetries, (domestic) political interests, and hegemonic as well as counter-hegemonic strategies and argues that these factors rather than economic costs and benefits can explain who has a stake in current arrangements and why they are difficult to change.

Local level: global blueprints and local practices

Like the dissolution of the Soviet Union required new governance arrangements for transboundary waters and infrastructure, so did the economic transformation from planned economy to privatization. Dissolution of collective and state farms at local level left a vacuum for the governance of tertiary irrigation channels and decision-making on local water allocation. At the same time, IWRM and Water User Associations (WUA) emerged as a new global paradigms for (local) water governance and were introduced to Central Asia by international actors. These questions have probably seen the most and also most diverse research, ranging from applied studies focused on further developing IWRM “tools”, to critical analysis of power dynamics within WUAs and their relation to state bureaucracy. Many studies reveal how these blueprints clash with local realities and how – even if they might achieve better water use efficiency – resistance by state bureaucrats and local elites prevent the inherent aims of democratic and transparent governance. While most researchers take global policy concepts as a starting point, only some focus instead on local meanings and self-organized practices of water governance in Central Asia.

National level: political struggles at national and basin scale

The political transformation from communist rule to regimes ranging between hybrid and strong authoritarian governance, as well as the exposure to Western discourses and interventions on good governance and democratization, led to reforms of the mechanisms of decision-making and bureaucratic organisation of the water sector. The past thirty years saw drastic changes regarding national water governance, including new legislations, water sector reforms, reshuffling of powerful state agencies, and controversial infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, there is much less literature on national water politics than there are studies analysing transboundary or local water governance. Still, some research has looked at the changing role of water bureaucracies and the politics of institutional reforms at national and basin level. It shows the strong role of informal institutions, and how powerful actors in the state bureaucracies either resist structural reform or use the process to secure or even enhance their position. Also academic research on the national level of water governance is often driven by the question of how concepts like IWRM or good water governance, promoted and implemented by international donors, can be effective in the political context of Central Asia.

In Central Asia, politics is engraved in water infrastructure: The Kirov dam in Kyrgyzstan (Credits: Shamii Zhumatov, Reuters)

The political economy of knowledge production on water governance in Central Asia

While there is considerable research regarding the transboundary and local levels, questions like how and why governments decide on which water policies or how different state, non-state, and international actors are involved or marginalized in decision-making, remain understudied. The focus on the implementation of concepts like IWRM, basin management, and WUAs represents a bias on norms, knowledge and concepts that come from the Global North. Many of these studies result in firm critique of such concepts and the role of international actors, but still these norms are the starting point of the inquiry. Agents of change seem to be mainly donors by promoting certain concepts and financing the establishment of certain institutional arrangements while local water users and policy makers appear as resistant to change or as making instrumental use of it in their own interest.

The neglect of region-specific water governance practices might be surprising when thinking of Central Asia as a region with several thousand years of water governance traditions and distinct water institutions. It is less surprising when situating Central Asia’s place in the global political economy of knowledge production.

Considerable funding for water research in Central Asia comes from international research projects and applied research funded by development organizations. The warning of conflicts over transboundary water and the promotion of blueprints for water resources and irrigation management created availability of funding for research on these issues. This affects which kind of knowledge is produced and considered relevant, but also who has access to funding for research and produces the knowledge. The production of knowledge is thus part of the politics of water and not separate from it.

Not only are concepts like IWRM, WUAs, or basin management concepts from the Global North applied to Central Asia (and many other regions). Also, they are policy concepts and not analytical categories. But many academic studies on water in Central Asia use them as conceptual terms. Through this they become normative, focusing on “failures” and shortcomings of Central Asian water users and policy makers in achieving certain norms that are treated as universal principles.

This power of global normative water concepts is not particular to Central Asia – it can be observed throughout the Global South. What seems to be specific to the region is that they are not contested by an alternative discourse built on regionally and/or disciplinary developed concepts and terms. This can be explained by the specific situation of social sciences, and in particular political science, in Central Asia. First, during Soviet times, political science was far away from methodological and theoretical pluralism, independent empirical research, and open debate; contrary to more technical disciplines, political science was also isolated from global academic discourses and networks. This legacy is still weakening the disciplines that would be necessary and best suited to analyse water governance and to bring in politics in a largely technical water management discourse. Second, the present (semi-)authoritarian regimes in the region pose restrictions for researching governance. Framework conditions for empirical political and social research deteriorated considerably in the past years. Critically investigating government politics became a safety risk for researchers, in particular for those from the region.

An open discussion of the constraints (and incentives) in research would be an important step to uncover the mechanisms that impact the unequal distribution of academic knowledge on water governance in Central Asia. Studying the politics of water in Central Asia cannot be separated from the politics of knowledge production; as unequal as voice and authority are distributed in decision-making about water, as unequal are they distributed in the discourse about it.

Read the full article with all references to relevant literature here:

Sehring, Jenniver. “Unequal distribution: Academic knowledge production on water governance in Central Asia.” Water Security 9 (2020): 100057.


Jenniver Sehring

Jenniver Sehring is a Senior Lecturer in Water Governance and Diplomacy at IHE Delft.

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3 Responses

  1. Jenniver Sehring says:

    Thanks, that is great to hear!

  2. Marion Wesely says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,
    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the en.hypotheses.org and hypotheses.org slider.
    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

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