Assessment: the ambiguity of I FAS

Table of Contents:

IFAS' role in water diplomacy is ambiguous: it is at the same time impeding and enabling processes of establishing joint water governance arrangements to realize equitable and sustainable outcomes. In many respects, IFAS is symptomatic of the region: it represents its power asymmetries (economically strong and politically powerful downstream countries vs. economically weak and political unstable upstream countries), political culture (strong hierarchies, and the importance of personal networks and informal arrangements), water discourse (focus on technical problems and an engineering perspective), and donor-driven policies (ASBPs).

The politically and economically weaker upstream states from the outset have expressed dissatisfaction with the dominance of certain countries within IFAS and in the donor-funded projects implemented through it.29 Even before Kyrgyzstan officially froze participation in IFAS, it had not appointed members to the EC since 2009. From other countries, representatives have sometimes not continuously been present. This is a sign that the riparian countries do not see IFAS as a major platform to ensure that the views of all member states are adequately represented and taken into account.

Ultimately, IFAS has not provided a level playing field for transboundary water management. The key documents that have determined the structure and mandate of IFAS and its sub-bodies were negotiated between 1991 and 1999. During these years, the negotiation power of the two upstream countries was further weakened through their more challenging transformation period, including the civil war in Tajikistan.30 Later on, it proved impossible to change the achieved status quo. The hegemony of the irrigation sector and thus the downstream countries remained in place.

On the other hand, and also beyond water, IFAS is the only regional organization where all five Central Asian countries cooperate. Often this fact alone is mentioned as an indicator of its value and importance. Indeed, it has been—with varying degrees among different chairmanships—an important platform for achieving agreements on water among the countries and coordinating technical level management. Thus, while IFAS appears to be weak when it comes to legal mechanisms, formal institutional mechanisms, and data aspects of

Prolonging or resolving water conflicts 239 technical mechanisms, its strengths are in the operational technical mechanisms and the informal institutional mechanisms it provides.

It can be argued that, from a water diplomacy perspective, IFAS indeed is effective in providing mechanisms that at a very practical level prevent and mitigate water-related conflicts as long as they are not politicized and dealt with at higher decision-making levels. It has, however, not managed to be a platform for effectively implementing agreements and developing new, basin-wide acceptable policies for joint water management that would prevent and resolve water-related conflicts in the long-term.


The importance of transboundary water resources in Central Asia has provided compelling incentives for regional cooperation on water. IFAS was established with the commitment of the states to cooperate on their shared water resources. In the middle of a difficult transition period and facing severe environmental problems, the newly independent states set up joint institutions and managed to achieve certain progress in improving water relationships in the transboundary basins of the Amudarya and Syrdarya. In contrast to numerous other, short-lived, regional organizations, it has continued to exist during difficult times.

Nevertheless, there are still important challenges and unresolved tasks in amplifying the impact of improved water resources management on income, employment, food security, and economic growth. So far, IFAS’ impact on solving these issues has been limited. The regional power asymmetries are determining its working mechanisms and ultimately prevent IFAS from being an impartial regional actor accepted by all riparians. Overall, it appears that IFAS and all related bodies and agreements do not represent a new water cooperation agreement based on the interests of all riparians, but in many respects still resemble the power relations of the early 1990s.

Still, we should not underestimate the extent to which IFAS plays an important role for enabling operational, technical cooperation and providing a set of institutions that allow the shaping and sustaining of professional networks and informal arrangements, which are an important element of Central Asian politics. Many immediate, smaller-scale transboundary issues could be addressed in this way. Given these features and the divisions among the organizations within IFAS, we might value its role in water diplomacy not in being an actor in itself, but in providing a set of institutionalized structures for dialogue and cooperation of which political actors at various levels can make use.

240 Jenniver Sein ing and Saghit Ibatullin


  • 1 See, e.g., David R. Smith, “Environmental Security and Shared Water Resources in Post-Soviet Central Asia,” Post-Soviet Geography 36, no. 6 (1995): 351-370.
  • 2 Saghit Ibatullin et al., Managing Water Resources in the Aral Sea Basin: Current Situation. Vision and Roadmap (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2016); and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “The Aral Sea Transboundary River Basin,” in “Irrigation in Central Asia in Figures— AQUASTAT Survey 2012," FAO Water Report No. 39,2013, nr/water/aquastat/basins/aral-sea/aral.sea-CP_eng.pdf.
  • 3 Stefanos Xenarios et al., “Climate Change and Adaptation of Mountain Societies in Central Asia: Uncertainties, Knowledge Gaps, and Data Constraints,” Regional Environmental Change 19, no. 5 (2019): 1339-1352.
  • 4 Agreement on cooperation in joint management, use and protection of water resources of inter-state sources, signed 18 February 1992, Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan; agreement on joint action to address the problem of the Aral Sea and surrounding areas, environmental improvement and ensuring socio-economic development of Aral Sea region, signed 26 March 1993, Kyzyl-Orda, Kazakhstan; and agreement on the use of water and energy resources in Syrdarya basin, signed 17 March 1998, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.
  • 5 See article 13 of the 1992 agreement.
  • 6 Shira Babow, “Knowledge as Power: The Role of Scientific Data in Transboundary Water Governance. The Case of the Syr Darya River Basin,” unpublished master’s thesis, University of Geneva, 2018.
  • 7 Ibatullin et al.. Managing Water Resources in the Aral Sea Basin.
  • 8 Marton Krasznai, “Institutional Cooperation on Water Resources Management in Central Asia,” in Water Resources in Central Asia: International Context, ed. Sergey S. Zhiltsov et al. (Cham: Springer. 2018), 41-60.
  • 9 See below section 4.4
  • 10 Lead author’s interview with an international expert (a), Tashkent, 03/04/2019.
  • 11 Ibatullin et al., Managing Water Resources in the Aral Sea Basin', and UNDP, “Final Report of the Central Asia Regional Water Advisor and a Proposed Programme for Continued UNDP Involvement,” 2006.
  • 12 Viktor Dukhovny and Vadim Sokolov, “Lessons on Cooperation Building to Manage Water Conflicts in the Aral Sea Basin,” UNESCO, IHE, and WWAP, “From Potential Conflict to Co-Operation Potential” (PCCP) series, No. 11,2003.
  • 13 Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had an interest in extending their irrigation area. See also the preamble of the 1992 agreement.
  • 14 Lead author’s interviews (informal conversations) with international experts (a) and (b), Tashkent, 3 April 2019.
  • 15 Diebold and Sehring, From the Glaciers to the Aral Sea.
  • 16 Elya Altynsarina, “Central Asian Leaders Hold First Aral Sea Summit since 2009, Agree to Develop Action Plan,” Astana Times, 28 August 2018,
  • 17 UNECE, GTZ, and EC IFAS, "Strengthening the Institutional and Legal Frameworks of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea: Review and Proposals,” draft discussion paper, 31 January 2010, https://www. united_FINAL_ENG.pdf.
  • 18 For example, there is no website of IFAS, just websites of the respective chairmanships. The website of ICWC does not refer to IFAS at all: see
  • 19 The planned move to Bishkek did not take place due to political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
  • 20 Krasznai, “Institutional Cooperation on Water Resources.”
  • 21 Lead author's interview with international expert (b), Tashkent, 3 April 03/04/2019.
  • 22 All EC IFAS chairs as well as all national delegates so far have been men.
  • 23 Under the Kazakh chairmanship, an international expert from outside the region was recruited as deputy chairman. This was not continued by the following chairmanships.
  • 24 UNECE et al., “Strengthening the Institutional and Legal Frameworks.”
  • 25 Krasznai, “Institutional Cooperation on Water Resources”; and UNDP, Final Report of the Central Asia Regional Water Advisor and a Proposed Programme for Continued UNDP Involvement.
  • 26 UNDP “Central Asian Water Mission: Final Report and Recommendations,” unpublished, 2003, 14.
  • 27 UNECE et al., “Strengthening the Institutional and Legal Frameworks”; and Ibatullin et al., Managing Water Resources in the Aral Sea Basin.
  • 28 News Agency, “Kyrgyzstan Ready to Restore Participation in IFAS,” 24 August 2018, to_restore_participation_in_IFAS/.
  • 29 World Bank, An Independent Evaluation of the World Bank's Support of Regional Programs: Case Study of the Aral Sea Water and Environmental Management Project (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2006).
  • 30 Krasznai, “Institutional Cooperation on Water Resources.”
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