When Climate Change Starts Wars
Rising temperatures are bringing ethnic tensions to a boil in Central Asia.
August 9, 2018
The Kyrgyz soldier stepped quietly out of the dark green bushes and swung his Kalashnikov rifle in the direction of our car. Another emerged and did the same. Their checkpoint was a skinny log dragged across a broken asphalt road heading toward an ethnic Uzbek village and the disputed waters of the Kasan-sai, a reservoir that irrigates the agricultural heartland of the ancient Fergana Valley. With a sleepy shake of his head, the special forces sergeant waved his rifle and made us turn our beat-up Mitsubishi around. “There won’t be any fighting here,” the sergeant said.
At least not today. The quiet of the hot September afternoon was unbroken as we turned around and slowly ground off through the heat. Driving back the way we came through the parched foothills on the edge of the western Tian Shan range, a spur of the Himalayas, we did not pass any other cars.
But it has not always been this quiet. Throughout the spring and summer in 2016, tensions flared after ethnic Uzbek villagers and police blocked access to the reservoir and its water, which lies inside Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan drove armored personnel carriers into Kyrgyzstan, and both sides have captured and detained each other’s citizens. Fistfights and potshots have been common. For farmers scratching out a bare existence from increasingly dry land, water is lifeblood, and worth fighting for.
herded his cattle and shouted when some wandered into a burdock thicket. “If I had water, I’d live like a king here,” said the 73-year-old through his long whiskers. “Where they have water, that’s Uzbek agriculture. Where there is no water, that’s my land.” He pointed his shepherd’s stick toward the green of the Fergana Valley. “Without water, it is impossible to live.”
Above us, on a rocky escarpment overlooking the disputed reservoir, stood a Kyrgyz armored vehicle with its guns pointing toward the Uzbek village.
This article was originally published in our “Power” issue in February, 2017.