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Aral Sea neighbors come together to resolve conflicts over a scarce resource

Rotary is tackling one of the biggest environmental and political crises of the 21st century – water resources – and to do so, Rotarians are leveraging their ability to build connections.

“The water crisis is one of the top three crises facing the globe, along with HIV/AIDS and malaria,” says Aaron Wolf, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University and a water resources conflict resolution expert. “It’s not just waterborne illness and ecosystem degradation; water shortages exacerbate tensions in a lot of already very hostile parts of the world.”

Satellite images from 2001, left, and 2017 show the extent of recent shoreline changes on the Aral Sea. 


The Aral Sea basin in Central Asia is one such place. Changes in the basin have a far-reaching impact on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. River diversion that began in the 1960s, when much of the region was part of the Soviet Union, has nearly desiccated the inland saltwater lake, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. Today, rusting ships lie beached on a desert contaminated by high salinity, and neighboring countries clash over the limited water resources they once shared.

“Central Asia is a tough part of the world for hydropolitics,” Wolf says, “probably one of the most tense of anywhere in the world. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, a lot of the arrangements that had been internal suddenly became international, with all of the complexity and suspicions and tensions that go along with that.”

In 2014 and again in 2016, Rotary Foundation global grants brought representatives from those nations together to help them navigate the delicate territory of diplomacy and transboundary conflict resolution. At the two symposiums, held in the Netherlands at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, participants began to build connections and to communicate in a way that may help head off conflict and lead to more sustainable water use.

Steve Brown, a past Rotary Foundation trustee and past president of the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club Foundation, learned about the Central Asian water crisis from leaders of the IHE Delft Institute, which has had a partnership with Rotary since 2012.

Brown worked with U.S. embassies to bring in participants, mainly public-sector officials dealing with water, energy, or planning, for the first Central Asia Water Symposium. Sessions featured lecturers who study water conflict management, including Wolf.

The goal of the first symposium was to help the representatives see the crisis through the perspective of their neighbors. Sessions included role-playing using a similar multinational water basin in another part of the world. For example, Wolf says, participants from upstream nations took on the roles of downstream representatives. Workshops also included discussions on conflict management and presentations on water issues.

“So ideally, as they’re doing the training, they’re also having conversations around the issues that are contentious,” Wolf says. “But they’re doing it in the context of training rather that formal negotiation, so the conversation can be a little freer.”

The initial symposium wasn’t intended to solve all of the political and environmental problems of the region; it was an effort to brainstorm and consider ways to approach the problems together.

“For that kind of conversation, we had absolutely the right elements,” Wolf says. “And ideally, this is the kind of conversation that continues and moves forward.”

Brown agrees. “I could see that meaningful relationships were being established and there was a lot of serious thought,” he says.

For the second symposium, held in December 2016, Brown hoped to see two things accomplished: to continue the dialogue, and to bring in representatives from governments and organizations that allocate funds to international water-related issues, including the World Bank.

“The problems are so large, they will take decades and probably billions of dollars to eventually resolve,” Brown says. “Rotary is here as more of a catalyst to move things forward.”

The relationships and connections forged at the first symposium were deepened at the second one, Brown says. “On a personal level, friendships were created between people who work in their respective ministries in these different countries,” he says. “They can actually share ideas.”

– Nikki Kallio

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