From Upscaling to Rescaling: Transforming the Fergana Basin from Tsarist Irrigation to Water Management for an Independent Uzbekistan

Hermann Kreutzmann

Abstract The Fergana Valley is regarded as one of the most fertile irrigated oases in Asia. The genesis of these highly productive agricultural lands is the result of a lengthy process that originated long before the Kokand Khanate controlled most of the valley. Major transformations occurred during Tsarist Russian rule when the upscaling of this irrigated land commenced and when Fergana was integrated into long-distance exchange networks. Major water works were planned, but only implemented in a massive fashion during Soviet rule with its major campaigns for modernisation and planning on a large scale. Cross-border management was established in the highly integrated water scheme at the same time. Rescaling is a challenge of contemporary times with the pressures of globalisation, independent Uzbekistan's dependence on water supplies from its neighbours who share the Fergana Valley's hydraulic resources and the conditions governing the cotton world market.

Keywords Post-socialist transformation • Modernisation • Path-dependent development • Central Asia • Aral Sea • Fergana Valley • Water management • Water conflicts • Major water engineering projects


The waters of the Oxus and Yaxartes still flow into Lake Aral. The great task of the future will provide work until the last drops of these rivers have been diverted to agriculture. Realize this: not until Lake Aral is dry need we expect an end to the development of the country between the rivers; until then we can expect a steady increase of produce and population. Realize this, and you then know what it means to speak of the future of the Duab. (Read on 27 March 1907 by Willi Rickmers (1907, p. 8) at the Central Asian Society in London)

Major water engineering projects (MWEPs) have been held up as significant symbols of modernisation. Technological approaches address the power and potential of ecological and societal transformation. Most of the major projects are located in areas with antecedents. Some of these have been irrigation hubs since ancient times. The Fergana Valley is no exception to this widespread phenomenon (Fourniau 2000; Francfort and Lecomte 2002; Cariou 2004). Known for its fertility in the midst of an arid environment, the utilisation of the Syrdarya waters formed the basis of a success story of the upscaling, expansion and extension of irrigation which, in turn, lead to the drying-up and shrinking of Aral Sea with all its consequences. The nineteenth-century Russian administrator and scholar Aleksandr Fedorovich Middendorf said that

[…] over thousands of years the populace had constructed huge water channels, carried out large-scale fertilization and planted whole forests of shade-giving trees for fruits and wood, with 'each individual tree being in need of life-giving water'. The Kokandis planted fields of wheat, barley, millet sorghum, corn, rice beans, sesame, flax, hemp, cotton, and alfalfa while their gardens included melons, water melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, grapes, apricots, peaches, apples, pears, quinces, nuts, plums, cherries, not to mention onions, carrots, beets and other produce. The main grain crop was wheat, which Kirghiz cattle ranchers raised on the lower slopes of the Alai range as a kind of side business. […] The expansion of irrigation after the early eighteenth century increased the number of villages and reduced the area available for grazing. Cotton growing always had held a special place throughout the Kokand Khanate, but in the nineteenth century farmers also began cultivating American long-fibred hybrids. (Middendorf 1882, pp. 11–12)[1]

This stated diversity of cultivars hints at the enormous fertility attributed to the Fergana Valley, the tradition of cotton cultivation prior to Russian colonisation and an early inclination to produce market-oriented cash crops. In the contemporary context, only cotton and wheat are discussed as the leading cash and subsistence crops of independent Uzbekistan. Cotton has been identified as the most controversial crop, the importance of which Max Spoor (2007) questioned as either a “curse” or “foundation for development”.

Through several transformations, the Fergana Valley has come a long way from the fertile hub of the Kokand Khanate (Fig. 9.1) to a tripartite bone of contention shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Looking at the path-dependent development of the growing irrigation systems in the Fergana Valley, the impact of modernisation as the guiding principle for transforming economy and society demands further analysis. The nexus of colonial/imperial domination and the experiment of modernising and expanding the water sector need to be explored to shed some light on the effects of upscaling an irrigation network and the challenges of rescaling in recent times. Imperial attitudes and boundary making during the latter half of the nineteenth century shifted borders as the result of the Great Game and have changed scale over time (Kreutzmann 2013a). The reconfiguration of territoriality poses an interesting challenge in understanding the impact on a “fixed infrastructure” such as the MEWP in the Fergana Valley. Borders have been shifted over time; the extent of controlled catchment areas, the size of the water management

Fig. 9.1 One of the earliest maps of the Fergana Valley was produced in Omsk in 1841 and published in St. Petersburg in 1849. It shows the Fergana Valley as a unit and as dominated by the Kokand Khanate (Source: Zapiski Russkago Geograficheskago Obshchestva 1849)

system and the socio-economic environment have experienced several transformations. The present-day challenge of adjusting the irrigation network's functioning to new borders, conflicts among neighbours and global relations needs further reflection when taking Neil Brenner's statement into context emphasising the interrelationship of these processes characterised as “[…] the deterritorialisation of social relations on a global scale [that] hinges intrinsically upon their simultaneous reterritorialisation on sub-global scales within relatively fixed and immobile configurations of territorial organisation” (Brenner 1999, p. 62). We will trace and link the effects of globalisation and modernisation to path-dependent developments in the Fergana Valley with its creation of a complex network of interconnected rivers and main canals. We will look at the existing system as a historico-genetic product faced with contemporary challenges differing significantly from the frame conditions and traits they initiated. And based upon the following overview of salient features that frame the modes of operation of this MWEP, we will highlight three aspects to assess the challenges Uzbekistan is confronted with in Fergana. First, the often neglected Tsarist strategy of modernisation, its emphasis on cotton cultivation and its transition and translation into the Soviet cotton-based growth model for “white gold” in the Fergana Valley; second, the challenges of spatial rescaling following Uzbekistan's independence; and, third, the constraints of operating a system that is presently heavily dependent on good relations with neighbourly and favourable global market conditions.

  • [1] Middendorf (1882, pp. 11–12); quoted according to the translation of Dubovitskii and Bababekov (2011, p. 58). See as well Joffe (1995, p. 369).
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