Kyrgyzstan locals at Batken close to the friendship river

Crossing borders with rivers of friendship in Central Asia

The piercing sun showed promise of a long lunch. Perhaps it could have been shashlik, skewers of juicy mutton, relished with wheels of warm bread. Here in Kyrgyzstan, it could have been served enjoying the green landscape of Batkin, like yesterday, after a morning of hunting for the rare Aygul flower. Today the heat only served a trickle of sweat down my back, squeezed against the border gate to Tajikistan with Doranbek and a bundle of pushing bodies. Doranbek played host, but it was really the river that brought me here. To be precise, it was the Isfara River.

Like more than 200 others throughout Central Asia, the basin of the Isfara is crossed by borders. The river and its benefits are split as it flows downstream between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In Soviet Times the gifts of the rivers could easily be shared. In general, countries upstream are good for hydropower generation, and the flatlands of those downstream, for agriculture. When icy temperatures kept snow locked in the mountains, ample water from the Tortgul Reservoir just outside Batkin, for example, could be released keep the rich agricultural fields downstream into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan fed until the seasons changed, and the rivers swelled again.

Tortgul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan

Times have changed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the river management is now at the mercy of different international laws and agreements. The challenges to water management as a result, proved formidable. Without a strong and united institutional system, the rivers that once united communities became a source of potential conflict. Shared infrastructure crumbled and with it, relationships. In places, water became the tinderbox that ignited unrest in the region.

Crossing borders

It was at one of these borders that Doranbek was guiding me through. He did not have to – not having anything to do in Tajikistan that day. Once we’ve made it to the other side, he would merely turn around and repeat the same schlep to get back home.

Truth be told, I was not that surprised. Since I arrived, the Kyrgyzs have unleashed a torrent of hospitality. Huge plates of plov, the local favourite rice dish, were at the order of the day. Every whim for sunrise photos and portrait shots were gladly met. They answered endless question, drove from one farmland to the other, stuffed me full of dried or green apricots and served endless pots of soothing leaf tea.

I though Doranbek tackled the border with me simply because I was his guest, but as soon as we crossed that last wired fence something made me reassess that thought. In retrospect, that moment summed up my reason for being in Central Asia. It was really a simple gesture; only a hug, after all. It happened when Doranbek handed me over to his colleague Abdulahad in Tajikistan but after the shaking hands, laughing, hugging and joking, it was clear they were two great friends, overjoyed to see each other. The moment lasted only a couple of minutes before Doranbek disappeared over the border again.

A hug might seem trivial but this one was not. This hug had a story.

More than hug

Living only a couple of kilometres from each other for many years, Doranbek and Abdulahad were after all, separated by an international border. They’ve never met each other until recently, when they both joined their local Small Basin Councils.

SBCs are advisory bodies that aim to find the best solutions to water-related problems. Members are a variety of local experts in fields such as the environment, irrigation and local government. Once SBCs for a river, on both sides of a border have been established, they are brought together to collaborate.

The SBCs are part of a project has been taking a somewhat different approach to water management here in Central Asia. Instead of only funding equipment and training, the Smart Waters Project (implemented by CAREC) is taking a long-term and slower approach, aiming rather to build relationships.

By bringing people together around the same table, and also providing training on integrated basin planning, the project aims to build relationships that will cross borders, to the benefit of rivers and the people that depend on them. Though its not a stipulated aim, the project success relies on the fact that people are more likely to collaborate if they just know each other. Once you’ve shared plov, you’ve shared something as binding as the letter of the law. The project puts humanity and compassion back into transboundary water management.

Doranbek and Abdulahad are an example of what is happening across the region. “He helps me when I cross the border, and when he comes to Kyrgyzstan I help him,” says Doranbek of his friendship with Abdulahad. It’s not a formalised agreement, but of course we also discuss water issues and challenges when we meet, he says.

Using rivers as bridges

That’s what I’m doing here at the moment. The project is taking place with financial backing from USAID, and concludes in 2020. I’m here to help identify and produces a series of success stories.

It’s not been difficult. There are many to choose from. Water here is used to fuel the region’s famed farmlands and power generation, to name two examples. Better water management thus touches on food security (read more about why what you eat makes a difference to our water here), international relations, and skills improvement, to name a few. Most of all, it touches people, and their relationships to water and each other. As example, the Isfara River Day is now being celebrated once a year. The tagline? The friendship river.

For me, much of the project successes are summarised in that hug between Doranbek and Abdulahad. It was a simple gesture, but one that was hefty with meaning.  I’ve only started, but I’ve learned a lot from my time in Central Asia already.

Lessons from the friendship rivers

For one, rivers and water have a long history of uniting people. Often, its politics that turn it into a source of conflict. Then, for people to benefit from shared water, they have to find a way to collaborate. Last, regardless of their perceived differences, people will often get along and find solutions if they have the opportunity to get to know each other. People mostly don’t mean each other harm.

Central Asia is an incredible place. Until I post more blogs, you can see more more photos and stories from the Central Asia friendship rivers on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Why is it important that people work together to save water? If you wonder why we should all save water, read this.
  • If you know you should save water, but wonder how you can do it, read this, because saving water starts at home.

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