The Eurasian Development Bank proposes 10 practical steps to preserve the potential of irrigated lands and water conservation in Central Asia
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (UzDaily.com) -- Central Asia again faced water shortages in the summer of 2023. The problem especially affected agriculture. This sector of the economy is based on irrigated agriculture, consumes up to 80% of water and is characterized by low water use efficiency. The irrigation infrastructure is over 50 years old. Over 50% of irrigated lands are susceptible to salinization. 40% of water is lost in irrigation canals. The new EDB study “Efficient Irrigation and Water Conservation in Central Asia” presents 10 practical steps to preserve the potential of irrigated lands and save water: four at the regional level and six at the national policy level.
This package of measures will save enough water each year to ensure sustainable development. Their implementation will require interaction between states, farmers and multilateral development institutions. The urgency of the measures is due to the expected reduction in the flow of the Amu Darya River. This was reported by the press service of the CIS Executive Committee.
Water resource scarcity is a key structural constraint for the socio-economic development of Central Asia. The region is among the most vulnerable to climate change. Temperatures here are rising faster than the global average. The number of droughts and periods of low water is increasing. The hydrological regime of rivers and groundwater recharge conditions are changing. The area of glaciers is rapidly decreasing - by 30% over the past 50 years. Climate change is causing a decrease in river flows, while the region’s water needs are growing rapidly.
The solution to the problem of shortage of water resources should be sought primarily in irrigation. Agriculture in Central Asia is the main consumer of water: 100.4 of the 127.3 km3/year, or 80% of water used in the region, was used for irrigation purposes in 2020. Irrigation has historically been of decisive importance for agriculture and food security in the region. The area of irrigated land in Central Asia is 10.1 million hectares, or about 2.9% of the world’s irrigated land. Irrigated lands account for almost 66% of the region’s gross agricultural output in value terms.
However, the irrigation infrastructure of Central Asia is characterized by high physical deterioration and insufficient technical level. It is poorly equipped with means of accounting and distribution of irrigation water and monitoring its use on the field. The average age of irrigation infrastructure exceeds 50 years. Up to 50% of irrigated lands are susceptible to salinity. The economic efficiency of water use in agriculture is low. 40% of water is lost in the irrigation canal system.
The transition to water conservation seems to be the only solution to the problem of preserving the potential of irrigated lands and ensuring food security in Central Asia. The need for the transition is caused not only by climate change and increased demand for water, but also by the expected reduction in the Amu Darya river flow from Afghanistan. By 2028, the combination of climate change, the onset of a low-water period and the commissioning of the Kosh-Tepa canal in Afghanistan will lead the Central Asian region to an acute chronic shortage of water resources, estimated by EDB analysts at 5-12 km3.
EDB analysts propose focusing on 10 practical steps to preserve the potential of irrigated lands and improve water use efficiency in Central Asia. Completing these steps will make it possible to prepare for the significant changes in water flow expected in the Aral Sea basin in 2028 and compensate for the expected increase in water shortages.
First of all, the region needs a consolidated regional approach.
1. One of the most effective solutions is the creation of the International Water and Energy Consortium of Central Asia (IWEC CA). The consortium could focus on implementing irrigation projects along with energy projects. Its creation will facilitate interaction and dialogue between multilateral development banks (MDBs) and the states of the region.
2. Consortia can also be created for the implementation of individual large investment projects (large hydraulic facilities). MDB cooperation could solve the problem of attracting investment in irrigation. MDBs operating in the region can act as financial operators, jointly implementing complex projects, attracting additional financial resources and providing effective financial support for complex projects.
3. It is advisable to create a Regional production and service cluster specializing in modern irrigation equipment. In terms of area of irrigated land, Central Asia ranks fifth in the world (in total) after China, India, the USA and Pakistan and represents a large market for irrigation equipment worth US$140–320 million. This is 4–8% of the world market.
4. It seems relevant to consolidate the position of the Central Asian countries to strengthen cooperation with Afghanistan. It is advisable to propose a partnership scheme in the existing mechanisms for managing water resources in Central Asia, including on the platform of IFAS and other regional organizations involved in the field of transboundary water resources.
The transition to water conservation must be supported by financial resources and requires institutional solutions.
5. The development of water and irrigation systems in Central Asia needs to attract significant investments, including in the format of public-private partnership (PPP). World experience, explored in the report through many cases of PPP application, indicates that this form of financing is effective. In addition to budgetary funds, the financial resources of MDBs are also of great importance for financing such projects.
6. It is extremely important to organize correct water accounting on off-farm canals and on farms with the participation of water user associations (WUAs). Strengthening the organizational and legal status of WUAs will increase the responsibility and obligations of WUAs regarding the use of water resources. These measures will subsequently make it possible to move to a system of paid water supply services for farms.
7. The gradual inclusion of investment contributions into the tariff will help budgetary water management organizations invest in the construction, modernization and renovation of irrigation systems.
In conditions of limited water resources and reaching the limit of extensive irrigated agriculture in Central Asia, the role of industrial agricultural technologies is increasing.
8. To counter the widespread salinization of irrigated lands, it is advisable to improve their reclamation status by reconstructing irrigation and drainage systems. For example, on-farm earthen channels can be converted into flume channels, and existing ones can be replaced with a pipeline system for supplying water to the fields. This will reduce filtration losses by three to four times.
9. It is recommended to universally introduce digital technologies in the water sector. This will allow rational distribution of water, ensure accurate water accounting and significantly facilitate the transition to a system of paid water supply services for farms. The expected savings in water losses from the introduction of digital water metering technologies is estimated at 12–15% per year. It is also advisable to organize a permanent monitoring system for the reclamation state of irrigated lands and soil salinization using remote satellite diagnostics.
10. It is recommended to use modern technologies of irrigation, laser land leveling, and crop cultivation everywhere. Thus, high-quality planning allows the implementation of new mechanized and water-saving technologies for surface irrigation along furrows. The yield on a slope-leveled field increases significantly when irrigated in furrows, and water savings can range from 20 to 30% per year.