(This November 8 story corrects typographical error in dateline)
KOK TAL, Kyrgyzstan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the Kyrgyz village of Kok Tal, it is the jarring sound of Bahadyr Mamatgapirov’s mobile phone that breaks the serenity of dawn.
“Get here soon if you need water for your farm,” he abruptly tells one caller. Within moments it rings again. “Wake up and come take care of your water,” he insists.
A small group of men emerge from the village, a cloud of dust pursuing their weary footsteps.
Mamatgapirov opens a metal sluice gate, releasing a stream of water down a series of irrigation canals. The men then use a pile of tattered sand bags to force the flow toward their fields.
He will repeat this process at regular intervals throughout the day, directing irrigation water to different fields at the behest of their owners. But as the day grows old, the farmers’ phone calls become more aggressive.
As the village’s nominated murab, or water man, Mamatgapirov must ensure that all 200 of Kok Tal’s farmers receive their fair share of water. But there is rarely enough for everyone.
“The problem is Uzbekistan” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Our water flows through Uzbekistan and they do not give us enough.”
Kok Tal’s water begins its journey at the Papan reservoir in Kyrgyzstan - 120 miles away from the village. It flows along a series of cracked and crooked canals – built during the Soviet era – until it is diverted, using hand-operated gates, to the various farms that line its route.
The canal network stretches across the Fergana Valley – a twisted knot of contested borders and enclaves that is acrimoniously shared between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Almost a quarter of Central Asia’s population lives in the valley, attracted by its high agricultural productivity in a region otherwise dominated by dry or mountainous terrain.
But not everyone’s land in the Fergana Valley is fertile. Overuse of water in upstream communities often leaves those downstream parched.
About 1,400 cubic meters of water is supposed to flow along Kok Tal’s irrigation canal each day, yet only half that volume emerges from the neighboring village – an isolated stretch of Uzbekistan surrounded by Kyrgyz territory.
“During the summer time, there are daily conflicts over irrigation water,” said Tynar Musabaev, executive director of the Central Asian Alliance for Water. “They are usually between villages, sometimes inter-ethnic and people have killed each other over irrigation water.”
Nargiza’s husband is among the dead. Four years ago he stumbled into the family home and collapsed on the floor - the color drained from his weathered cheeks, his black hair matted with congealed blood.
He had been patiently waiting for his irrigation water when a neighbor attacked him with a spade.
“That guy was Kyrgyz and my husband was Uzbek. The guy said that Uzbeks were not allowed water,” said Nargiza, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisal. “He was killed because of nationalism.”
That summer Kyrgyzstan suffered its worst drought in 23 years. This year, farmers from across the country fear they are in the midst of another drought.
“Every year it is getting hotter,” said Nazria Eshmatova who has been farming in Kok Tal for two decades. “This year has been particularly bad.”
Twice a month Mamatgapirov tries to irrigate Eshmatova’s land by directing water toward her canal - but the pathetic stream perishes long before it can reach her crops.
Harvest season is drawing to a close, yet hundreds of harvested onions lie discarded on the cracked earth. Like the rest of Eshmatova’s yield, they are too small to sell in the market. Her cotton plants have refused to flower at all.
“If there was more water then it would be okay, but we do not get enough so our crops are just drying up,” she said, crouched above the yellowing plants.
The World Bank has found that up to half of Kyrgyzstan could be affected by desertification by the end of the century, as the region experiences some of the most intense levels of warming on the planet.
With temperatures rising, the glaciers that feed the Fergana Valley’s two major rivers – the Syr Darya and Amu Darya – are shrinking at an unprecedented rate.
The melt is four times the global average, and Swiss scientists warn that most of the glaciers will have disappeared by 2050.
“If our glaciers keep thinning at their current speed then they won’t live for long,” said Ryskul Usubaliev, of the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences.
“This will lead to water shortages across the region, especially during the summer months when our rivers depend on melt from the glaciers.”
A fiercely guarded fence between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan usually prevents disputes over water from escalating into violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s open border with Tajikistan is a regular stage for conflict.
Twice this summer, armed guards were called in to defuse tensions between the Kyrgyz village of Ak Sai and the neighboring Tajik enclave of Vorukh.
One altercation involved a hostage situation, while the other saw a hundred men clash over the installation of a water pump.
With tensions still festering, officials on both sides of the ethnic divide were reluctant to talk with journalists. But they confirmed there have been “minor” altercations over access to land and water.
Local residents are less diplomatic. Mashrap Toichiev accuses his Tajik neighbors of “torturing” the Kyrgyz by limiting their access to drinking water.
“We fight over pastures and water. That is just what life is like here,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The young men gather together, they block the road with their cars and then they fight.”
“If there are any further water shortages then there will be even greater struggles. God knows what might happen,” he said.
‘THE NEXT BIG WAR’
Representatives from the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan regularly meet to discuss international water management.
But according to Bolot Moldobekov, who regularly attends the meetings as co-director of the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences, their promises of cooperation exist only on paper, not in practice.
Officials at Kyrgyzstan’s Department for Water Resources, Water Use and Interstate Water Sharing declined to comment on Moldobekov’s charge.
Musabaev, of the Central Asian Alliance for Water, says that lack of cooperation could mean more conflict ahead as climate change brings more competition for water.
“Unless there is greater regional cooperation over water then these issues might create the next big war,” said Musabaev. “The war of the 22nd Century - a war over water.”