Whether it’s Israel maybe pre-emptively striking Iran, Afghanistan spiralling into sectarian violence, Libya becoming home base for Al-Qaeda, or Syria continuing to be the site of a government-led genocide, there’s no shortage of potential dirty wars and ominous harbingers in the Middle East and Central Asia. While everyone is focusing on the recent turmoil in Benghazi, a new kind of conflict is rising in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that could eventually lead to the first water war of the 21st century.
It’s fair to say that when Louise Arbour, the hard-ass former UN prosecutor of war criminal Slobodan Milošević, lists her bets on future wars, the rest of us should take her seriously. In December 2011, writing for Foreign Policy, Arbour predicted Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two obscure Central Asian countries to most westerners, as potential combatants in a war over quickly depleting water resources. Judging bycurrent tensions between the two, she might be right.
Basically the Tajiks, who are already plagued by an Islamic insurgency, plan to build the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River. The river is a major tributary to the Amudarya—the main water vein for downstream Uzbekistan. While the hydroelectric power from the proposed dam would make the Tajiks rich, it’ll make the Uzbeks thirsty. This has been a problem for Uzbekistan since Stalin’s failed plan for the Transformation of Nature during the 1940s drained the Aral Sea (Uzbekistan’s main water reserve) to irrigate cotton fields.
Pissing off the Uzbeks, however, may not be what the Tajiks want to do. Besides being geopolitical wildcards, Uzbek President Islam Karimov is widely considered a tyrant, ruling over his country’s oil reserves and national wealth since a questionable 1991 election. He’s also a cheap imitation Saddam. And like any delusional dictator, he’s known for his outlandish behavior: like rewriting history books to make himself the spiritual descendant of the warlord Tamerlane, owning a soccer team in the national league (who are conveniently champions nearly every year), and allegedly ordering the assassination of a political dissident hiding in Sweden. Human Rights Watch even accused his regime of systematic torture, including boiling rebels alive.