BATKEN, Kyrgyzstan – “My crops are all dying,” says Raziya Yuldasheva, crouched over a limp tobacco plant. “They should be this tall by now,” she says, gesturing at her knee. Instead, the yellowing crop has grown no more than a few inches, starved of water by the parched earth below.
In Kyrgyzstan’s Kadamjay district, it is often women who are found cultivating land in the 104F (40C) heat. Local officials told News Deeply recurrent drought has forced 20-30 percent of the male population to find work abroad, unable to sustain a living in a region dominated by agriculture.
“I take care of our crops all by myself now my son has gone to work in Russia.” Yuldasheva explains. “So many men are leaving because there is a shortage of water.”
This demographic shift has allowed women to carve a new position for themselves within the household, altering gender roles in a relatively conservative society. But the new responsibilities have come at a price, with women now embroiled in an escalating dispute over the region’s most precious resource.
A Soviet Water System
The water used for irrigation in Kadamjay must travel more than 120 miles (195km) from its source at the Papan reservoir. It flows along a series of cracked and crooked canals – built during the Soviet era – and is diverted to the various farms that line its route using hand-operated dams.
This network of canals stretches across the Fergana Valley – a twisted knot of contested borders and isolated communities, acrimoniously shared between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Almost a quarter of Central Asia’s population live 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. The overuse of water in upstream communities often causes drought in those downstream. Fifty cubic feet (1.5 cubic meters) of water is supposed to flow along Kadamjay’s irrigation canals, yet only half that volume emerges from the neighboring village – a part of Uzbekistan surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, its perimeter fiercely guarded by armed officers.
“During the USSR, when there were no state borders, water specialists would go into each village and fix up the dams so that the water was shared fairly between villages,” says Duishenbek Orozbaev, head of the Kadamjay Water Users Association.
“Now we cannot go into that village, so the water is always over-used and half of it disappears.”
Water Shortage Drives Conflict
Yuldasheva’s village is a melting pot of Kyrgyz, Tajik, Tatar, Turkmen, Uzbek and Russian farmers – the sons and daughters of economic migrants who flocked to the Fergana Valley under the Soviet Union.
“There have been many disputes, we often argue about who the water is meant for,” says Yuldasheva, who is ethnically Uzbek. “There is the potential for quarrels, fights or even worse if the water does not come.”
The scale of these conflicts is not to be underestimated. In 2010, an altercation between a group of Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths led to a wave of inter-ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan’s southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Hundreds were killed in the ensuing riots, which also forced 100,000 refugees into Uzbekistan.
“During the summer time, there are daily conflicts over irrigation water,” says 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.”
Women on the Frontline of Climate Change
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.
Compared to an average global increase of 7.2F (4C) by 2100, mean annual temperatures in Central Asia are expected to rise by at least 12.6F (7C), reaching 5.4F (3C) by 2050.
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 scientists warn that most of the glaciers will have disappeared by 2050.
This reduction in water availability is projected to occur alongside a 30 percent increase in demand for irrigation across the Fergana Valley – one of the fastest growing regions in Central Asia, which already endures high levels of poverty and unemployment.
As the relationship between climate change and forced migration intensifies – with an exodus of working-age men leaving the Fergana Valley – it is women who will find themselves at the forefront of the conflict over irrigation water.
“Women whose husbands have migrated away are some of the most vulnerable to water shortages,” says Meerim Azimjanova from U.N. Women’s partner organization, the Rural Advisory Service.
“They must take care of all the fields and the family, yet they are often neglected when it comes to deciding the water delivery schedule.”
Conservative gender roles have prevented women from assuming authoritative positions within the decision-making process, and the CAAW; those at the top are guilty of both sexism and nepotism, meaning women are often the last to receive their irrigation water.
In the district of Aravan, in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh province 60 miles (95km) north of Kadamjay, the Rural Advisory Service found that 16 percent of farmers were marginalized by the municipal body that controls the water delivery schedule – almost all of them were women.
The Last in Line for Water
Tajibarkhon Safarkulova owns 50 acres (20 hectares) of farmland near Aravan’s southern border with Uzbekistan. In the absence of her four sons – who all work in Russia – the 63-year-old widow was often scheduled to receive her irrigation water late at night, when an impenetrable darkness made it impossible for her to leave the house and tend to her crops.
“Everyone would fight over the water schedule, but I am not the conflicting type so I would always be the last one to get any water,” says Tajibarkhon. “I suffered a lot back then, as my plants were not getting any water.”
Tajibarkhon is now among the first to receive irrigation water in Aravan after U.N. Women implemented a water-sharing initiative that ensures marginalized groups have equal access to irrigation water.
“My crop production almost doubled in a year,” says Tajibarkhon. “And now my neighborhood is very peaceful; we don’t have conflicts anymore.”
Despite the tangible outcomes in Aravan, project manager Azimjanova is realistic about the prospect of peace in a region where water is worth fighting for. “There might not be any conflict over water in this community, but now the conflict will be with Uzbekistan,” she told News Deeply.
As temperatures and tensions rise, it is only a matter of time until this collision of geography, climate and politics turns the Fergana Valley into a crucible of human conflict – with more and more women on its frontline. The question is when?
“This is the war of the 22nd century,” says Tynar Musabaev. “A war over water.”