Toktogul Hydroelectric Power Station

Toktogul Dam: All For One, Or One For All?

Group 64

Kyrgyzstan currently controls Toktogul dam which provides a majority of its electricity demand (Poindexter, 2016). Doing so allows them to be less fossil fuel reliant on neighbouring countries, especially downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. However, subsequent unstable water flow potentially places the citizens of these countries in agricultural peril, ultimately leading to starvation (Aliyeva, 2017). Should Kyrgyzstan implement joint control of the dam, prioritizing public welfare for all, at the expense of hindering its energy independence?

National interest as an indisputable right

Toktogul Hydroelectric Power StationFirst and foremost, the assumption is made that the government of Kyrgyzstan is operating the dam with the sincere purpose of bettering the lives of its populace as opposed to furthering ulterior agendas such as increasing the political or personal gain of government officials. This then means the moral value being defended is the welfare and development of its own populace. With this in mind, Kyrgyzstan is right in putting national interests first since government authorities must act on behalf of the people who would have voted for them to defend and take care of them. Moreover, assuming that a majority would have voted for the current government in power, and that elections were free and fair, this means that the Kyrgyz government is right in satisfying their constituents. This is in fact utilitarianism – bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people on a national scale.

As much as fair sharing of resources is indeed virtuous and diplomatic, history has demonstrated examples where such actions have led to cruel armed conflicts (Le Billon, 2001). In addition, even if a compromise were to be considered, this can lead to the consequence of less electricity generated, meaning that countries to whom power is sold (including Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) and Kyrgyzstan itself would incur mutually disadvantageous losses. Again, from the utilitarian ethical approach, one should avoid such a painful consequence.

Even from a regulatory standpoint, Kyrgyzstan has an absolute right to operate this facility based on the principle of permanent sovereignty (Schrijver, 1997) which guarantees national immunity and possession over its natural resources. It allows the country to use water within its borders without asking permission from neighbouring nations. To go against such a core principle would undermine the very nature and function of state. One can go a step further in saying that if countries are encouraged to interfere into the domestic affairs of others, it can have the domino effect of sparking similar on-going disputes around the world, expanding to issues aside from water management.

Based on the evidence and arguments presented, one reaches the conclusion that Kyrgyzstan has the right to continue asserting control over Toktogul dam. Although it may be initially perceived as selfish, it has been proven to benefit other countries to which Kyrgyzstan sells electricity. The governments of downstream countries should then be finding alternative solutions to resolve the water shortage issue without placing demands on Kyrgyzstan. Their complaining simply shows that more effort needs to be placed on adapting their industrial sectors to be more resilient to change, instead of casting blame, and ultimately remaining dependent on the decisions of the Kyrgyz government.

Welfare for all, not just for privileged ones

Group 64 Second PhotoAccording to the UN Human Right to Water and Sanitation resolution (UN, 2010), water access is an essential right to every human being. Since this is a defining characteristic of individual rights, it should be considered a top priority in the “Toktogul Dam” conflict in Central Asia.

Issued in 1998, an international agreement concerning water management was established with the aim of assuring justice to the populace at large in Central Asia. However, a lack of commitment on the part of involved governments has led to its unsuccessful implementation. This demonstrates the urgent necessity to introduce a renewed multilateral system of trade-offs that aims for the common good. The proposed reformed agreement should consider three main aspects: the long-term development of the region, sufficient and impartial water-energy exchanges and guarantees to assure its implementation. Furthermore, by implementing a joint management system, the benefits of the Toktogul Dam will be more widespread, encompassing the welfare of the majority of Central Asian inhabitants; this must prevail against simply benefitting the citizens of just one nation.

If Kyrgyzstan is allowed to continue controlling the dam, the unfavourable situation of downstream countries will worsen throughout the coming years, engendering even more conflicts and hardship to innocent people. Although Kyrgyzstan argues that national energy security is their main concern for refusing to join a new agreement, studies have demonstrated that an improved water-energy exchange scheme would not be a threat to its energy security and costs (Mitchell & Keilbach, 2001). Also, according to environmental and political experts, water management should be based on targets throughout the year instead of by seasons (summer and winter) as it is currently done. This strategy aims to limit the effects of drainage when water resources are affected by weather conditions (Bernauer & Siegfried, 2008).

Additionally, studies undertaken by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have foreseen serious consequences due to climate change that can affect the Toktogul Dam. This includes faster evaporation of water, as well as increasing the frequency and intensity of floods and runoffs in the mountains (Hitz, 2010). This is quite likely to happen and can have far-reaching effects. However, Kyrgyzstan’s seemingly isolationist policy will limit its ability to obtain aid if it were to experience a crisis caused by these changes.

Upon providing hard evidence and arguments, it is clear that the current situation does not satisfy the needs of these countries and currently generates tension. Therefore, Kyrgyzstan should allow downstream countries to be part of the decision-making process of the dam’s water management through the suggested multilateral agreement. This may seem prejudicial to Kyrgyztan, especially since it involves sharing its resources with other countries. However, it is a necessary means of guaranteeing its national security by having allies in the entire region. This shows that long-term multilateral cooperation is inherently beneficial, and ultimately essential in assuring a prosperous future for everyone.

82 thoughts on “Toktogul Dam: All For One, Or One For All?

  1. In one part, i will encourage these countries especially the downstream to diversify their sociopolitical and economic resources. what if this water dries up tommorrow? this will strengthen a mutually beneficial multilateral system not only today but for the future. furthermore, the privileged country should not impose stringent conditions on their neighbors because a natural resource may be identified or a leading edge development from there tomorrow that they may depend on. Hence, in as much as protecting and sustaining national interest, international allies is important.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Lewis. Downstream countries diversifying their industrial sectors will certainly be a welcome alternative for them since the last thing a country may want is to have such a weakness like being reliant on another country for water. Yet at the same time, a compromise is wise for all!

  2. I favour the latter view in which Kyrgystan should co-operate with its neighbours. Since water management is truly a common concern, all stakeholders should be enabled to work together for the benefit of all. Therefore, questions of such a common global good as water shouldn’t be treated from a narrow agency perspective as the one of a nation-state.

    1. Hi NiKlix, thanks a lot for your comment. Your comment on an agreement for the common global good is well received and indeed moral. This is in line with the utilitarian ethical perspective where the best choice is that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Yet how about a nation’s sovereignty? Isn’t it fair that a country use its own resources, like any other country would with that is theirs? This is the essence of Kantian theory where if something is good for me, it is good for you too! Yet again, one can still argue that water shortages is bad for everyone, and people will certainly think differently when the shoe’s on the other foot as the saying goes.

  3. I found this issue to be one of tremendous importance not only to the parties involved but to the world at large as well. There are similar cases all across the world where the use of hydro-power irreversibly changes the lives and livelihood of those “around” the facility. It would be good lesson to learn over the coming years s to how exactly this is handled sighting the arguments made and the irrefutable evidence laid out before us. How have other facilities, countries and even regions handled similar conflicts? What is the real price of Energy?

    1. Thank you so much for your comment kdrae91. Indeed, history can teach us how to solve these problems and potential ones in the future. It also goes to show that energy isn’t as simple as just turning on a light switch at home. Do note in this case however that the Toktogul Dam was Soviet built, meaning that the problem didn’t exist before the fall of the USSR. This has only popped up due to countries asserting control within their borders.

  4. I had to do a little reasearch to make myself an opinion, you could have said agriculture in the regions affected has its origin in the nineteenth century Russian expansion to de deserts in Central Asia. Also, I had no idea that in the Soviet era this dam was planned and built, just as the crops relying on irrigation systems. Having said that, I consider that although cooperation would be the best but idealistc solution, why not trying to see this issue as a second-best solution scenario? Its quite clear that joint management is out of discussion. But, if Kyrgystan is no longer dependant on fossil fuels from its neighbours but these nations still have those commodities to offer, it’s possible trying to find another buyer and use a share fron that income in buying water with under a multi-part tariffs schedule whilst investing the rest of that revenue in self-sufficient national proyects for using and recycling water? That will surely be costly for the affected nations, but that seems much better than running out of water or going to war.
    ¡Saludos! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment Sugarman! Your comment makes much sense; however it is a major diplomatic issue since downstream countries outright don’t agree with having to pay for water released for irrigation needs. Kyrgyzstan would prefer to treat water as a commodity, and attach a cost on water released from the dam to compensate for the loss of energy generation. It really is quite interesting to study the issue, looking at both sides.

  5. A really interesting article.
    I like the use of analysing utilitarianism on a geographical level, that being nationally. It really adds a new factor to the argument. Prior to this I had only thought of it’s use as a total across all involved parties.

    Overall, I would be in favour of the latter argument of control being separated. This would allow for further development of the region as a whole, and not just of the one nation, serving utilitarianism on its most primary level.

    1. Thanks for your comment KurtS! Indeed in the case of dams, the utilitarian approach can be used both for the country that owns the dam, and all countries in the region affected by water shortages because of the dam. It goes to show the weaknesses of ethical theories, and highlights the importance of having to look at multiple theories to make an informed judgement.

      Here is some food for thought. How about care ethics? Don’t you think that the government has to prioritize developing strong relationships with its citizens by looking out for their needs? This is what they need to do in order to get voted into office in the next elections! If they don’t, the electorate would be generally dissatisfied, and switch their allegiance to another political party that promises to reduce blackouts and electricity tariffs.

  6. I’m not too clear on what effects the dam is having on the countries downstream.

    Some of the arguments about dams are that they help regulate water flow, preventing damaging floods.
    Is the Toktogul Dam simply holding a reservoir of water that it uses to power turbines? in which case water is flowing downstream. What are the downstream issues?

    The argument for the dam uses utilitarianism on a national scale (and I like the assumptions made), surely using utilitarianism on an international scale would be an argument against the dam.

    1. Thank you for your comment DrPatrickJS. Indeed the article doesn’t clarify the effects that the dam has on downstream countries. The main issue is water management of the dam in the summer and winter months. Water is held back in the summer in order to store water for winter, when there is a lack of precipitation and river flow due to freezing temperatures. However, the summer is when crops are planted, meaning that water is not available to irrigate crops, thus translating to poor harvests in subsequent months. In addition to this, releasing water during winter months is terrible since there is an increased likelihood for major flooding due to glaciers and snow melting. It all comes down to both holding and releasing water at inopportune times for downstream counties.

      And certainly, the utilitarian perspective can be used at a regional level since this is affecting multiple countries. But also, what about the countries that would benefit from power that they buy from Kyrgyzstan? Won’t this again be a benefit to many people, and support the dam’s operation?

  7. This is a question worth considering deeply.
    A country has the responsibility which helps residents to have a better life, also it has the responsibility which maximizes the benefits for everyone.
    In fact, I support Kyrgyzstan controls Toktogul dam which provides a majority of its electricity demand. Kyrgyzstan can take advantage of this dam because it has possession first which means it has the right to control.

    1. I would disagree with your opinion that the government of Kyrgyzstan should have possession and right to control the dam. If we look at this issue from an ethical point of view, many downstream countries are dependant on the water as it would be beneficial for each and every human being present. By saying that the government of Kyrgyzstan is protecting its natural resources, would it be utilitarianism approach to the problem on hand?

      1. Dear Jax.
        We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
        Yet the utilitarian approach aims to find a solution that tries to bring the happiness to the biggest number of people, does that take into account the national distinctions? And when we say a majority, we mean the largest group of people, but to what scale? National? or Regional? Or Continental?
        Undoubtedly, it is impossible to reconcile positions of all countries but taking part in this discussion, we encourage the search for solution and exchange of opinions

    2. Dear mqallawati.
      We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
      That is true that this engineering object provides the vast majority of electricity demand, and having to regulate water in favor of downstream countries will bring substantial losses. Nevertheless, we also believe that there is a profound social implication on the population of those countries by inducing undesirable tension which is unacceptable in the context of international relations and ultimately leads to the unhappiness of people

    3. Thank you so much for your comment Ran! It makes much sense for a country to be able to exploit its own natural resources. This is in line with Kantian theory where if it is good for me, it is good for you! And of course, with genuine purpose.

  8. This article is definitely a great example of a problem (or a dilemma) when something is made by common effort and later became being utilized by a significantly smaller group of people. What I mean is the Dam was built during Soviet Union period and the project was considered as a source of resources for all of the surrounding countries, but after Soviet Union collapsed, the detached countries faced with a problem that the infrastructure is not made to be decentralized.
    In my opinion, as soon as the Dam has already been built, the only question left is the right management. It is obvious that Kyrgyzstan has to import many resources and this Dum is a great opportunity to make a deal for the benefit of their people.
    But, the big aspect that is left is the ecological reasoning of the project and the consequence of the utilizing the Dum. In my opinion, it is a crucial question deserving closer attention, as soon as all of the countries of the region are agriculture ones.
    Overall, the article is written in the clearest way and it highlights the modern problem that has to be solved. Great job!

    1. Dear Vladimir.
      We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
      We do believe that management is important but how in practice we are going to implement that? You utterly professionally highlighted the history of this project which we failed to demonstrate in our article, although from our perspective an access to water should be provided at any time and under any political system.

  9. Although Kyrgyzstan has the right to improve the infrastructure and energy sources they have the responsibility to take into consideration how their actions would affect other countries.

    By only considering their own well being they may be creating a utilitarianist society within Kyrgyzstan but are actually dong the opposite with regards to the region as a whole. Either by way of joint cooperation or reparations Kyrgyzstan could start to rectify this.

    1. Dear ymp17.
      We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
      This is indeed an art to both maintain dam for pursuing economic interests in your own country and take into consideration the needs of downstream countries. There is a danger of getting away from humanitarian values towards purely money aspect, and this is why we decided to raise this question for public awareness

  10. This is a really interesting article, which reminded me of when I learnt about the 1996 Ganges Treaty at school. The Ganges is an example of where India and Bangladesh came to an agreement about the distribution of the river for the benefit of both countries, if I remember correctly they divide it by flow, but I think that this method has been proved to not be fair due to many circumstances that were not considered. Doing a bit of research it seems that they also looked to the UN policies, but focused on water needs and not rights as you mention in this article. I agree that it is not humanitarian for Kyrgyzstan to take full control of the dam. I understand that they have a duty to their nation, however surely we are at the point where globalisation is so strong that we cannot ignore our neighbours in other countries. Surely it is not fair for citizens to suffer downstream just because they were born on the wrong side of the border. I think that the world should try and distribute their fresh-water sources for the benefit of as many as possible. Although it seems hard to say whether agriculture or green energy is the bigger benefit in this instance.

    1. Dear ebjay.
      We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
      Your story of conflicts of interests between India and Bangladesh is a brilliant example of how similar issues might be resolved, and it deserves bigger attention from governments. It is also encouraging that you mentioned green energy since there is a potential for the deployment of renewable energy sources in this sun abundant region. Moreover, globalization not only unites people together and wipes out borders, but also enable us to speak openly and look for combined effort that reminds us about our values

  11. This was a good read. I completely agree with your derived conclusion. It is indeed beneficial for all countries involved to share resources and allow other countries to benefit from them. this will definitely ease the tension between the parties involved and will allow for better future communications between the countries, however, this issue is clearly very sensitive, and these types of issues require the utmost precision when handling them. Therefore, it is integral to allow all parties involved a decent amount of time to handle the negotiation process.

    1. Dear mqallawati.
      We highly appreciate the time you have taken to express your opinion and we find your comment very interesting.
      This is right that such issues require a decent amount of time, and this article shows us that final solution has not been found even though it has been ongoing tension for more than 20 years. This highlights the complexity of the whole situation, and necessity to make concessions from all parties involved

  12. They are definitely asking too much. Putting own independence to fulfill the duties that must be performed by foreign governments themselves? No, thank you. We have gone through a lot with that.
    Besides, it is absolutely unacceptable to make concessions without giving something in return. Like Donald Trump always says: we need to make a deal. If you demonstrate your weakness once, next time they will come to your house asking to provide your markets for their products with a clarification: our people suffer, we need a new market to thrive on you.
    I do assume that the problem with water is quite complicated though because unlike any other natural resources, it is not easily supplied because it requires vast

      1. You are right, the distribution needs to be fairly done to have an agreement among the nations. There was a similar problem in Africa, the water flow was divided but it came up that the process was unfair and corrupt for some of the nations so the issues came up again and the problem was not really solved.

  13. Has any of authors genuinely faced water shortage? When you are restricted of doing normal things like taking a bathroom, or water the garden. When you always keep in mind the potential threat of being cut off from the water supply in one day entirely, ending up with a constant feeling of fear and insecurity. People do nasty things if they are forced to survive both from lack of job point of view (many jobs in Central Asia are reliant on water) and from supporting basic human functions in terms of being hydrated enough.

    1. Your point of view is very understandable, sometimes, it is necessary to try to be in somebody else’s shoes to be able to really understand the problem. The expectancy of life of the population in the downstream countries has dropped to 50 years due to the scarcity of water; it tells us about the living conditions of these people.

  14. After reading the article I can agree on both that Kyrgyzstan should have the right to have their own energy security as a nation; and that the welfare of neighbouring countries is also a priority. However the current use of the Toktogul dam is unsustainable for both Kyrgyzstan and its neighbouring countries in the long-term special since there is more than enough evidence to support the inevitable affects Climate Change such as droughts and floodings. The Kyrgyz Government should be focusing on future relationships and national cooperation for the populace. The Short-term effects of having complete control over their energy security will be short lived.

    1. Completely agree, in order to assure a prosperous future for these nations, it is important to make a sustainable agreement to be able to face these environmental issues that are foreseen.

  15. I too agree that Kyrgyzstan has a right to use its dam to maximise clean energy, it is unfortunate that it effects on the other countries but the current law is such. If the law worked in any other way then it would be too subjective and complex. That would mean that every actions within a nation would have to be analysed for negative effects on other countries and which would be very hard to enforce. We choose to believe for better or worse that nations will take into account surrounding countries whilst using and mining their resources.

    1. Kyrgyzstan is, in fact, making use of its right, however, it would be important to highlight the fact that the surrounding countries were not even considered at the moment of building the dam since it was built by the Soviet Union which deliberately took control of the natural resources of all the region to have the ‘power’ in the area. Now that the Soviet empire is gone, it cannot work as it used to be because the power is not centralized anymore. It would be beneficial for both countries to explore alternatives that benefit both.

  16. Good article, interesting read.

    I do agree with your conclusion that the resource should be shared and that will benefit everyone, it is very hard to quantify by how much though!

    However, I wonder how hard it would be for us to share this resource if we were the giving country and not the receiving one, there’s definitely an argument for allowing Kyrgyzstan to do what ever they want to do with the Dam as they built it and incur the cost of running it. In an ideal world this would not matter but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world.

    1. The dam was built by the Soviet Union which deliberately took control of the natural resources of all the region to have the ‘power’ in the area. They used to have a trade-off which exchanged fossil fuel for water. Now that the Soviet empire is gone, it cannot work as it used to be because the power is not centralized anymore. It would be beneficial for both countries to explore alternatives that benefit both.

  17. “A primary plank of foreign policy is self-interest or national interest. The current British debate on Brexit and President Donald Trump’s declaration, “America first”, are but two recent examples of that truism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, soviet central control was passed to the newly independent Central Asian republics. Control of the Toktogul hydropower dam accordingly passed to Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorer countries in the region. Agreements were signed in 1991 and thereafter on a) the Use of Water and Energy Resources of the Syr Darya Basin, b) Cooperation in the Field of Joint Water Resources Management and Conservation of Interstate Sources, and so on. However, the agreements (which were honoured in the breach) did not require Kyrgyzstan to relinquish control. When ethnic differences and the Russian, US tug-o- war for dominance in the republics are added, you have the recipe for conflict.
    For instance, the USA maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan.

    US$150 million has been earmarked to complete rehab of 1,200-MW Toktogul hydropower plant. Uzbekistan is not paying for this. At the same time, Uzbekistan in collaboration with Kazakhstan and Russia is exploring an ambitious project which would reduce dependence on Toktogul. The project would enable the Russian Federation to play a greater role in the region, especially in Uzbekistan.

    There is no doubt that Kyrgyzstan, like many other former Communist countries, needs political reforms, constitutional changes and a new strategy for economic development. One therefore recognizes the interplay of ethics and political expediency.”

    Emailed Comment

    1. This is a great comparison with current and important political event in some countries, put themselves first, which is totally understandable. It might be true, that some nations have reached a very high grade of independence and they might not need help from other countries, however, this is not the case of Kyrgyzstan who needs from the neighboring countries to assure national security in terms of agriculture and energy.

  18. This article is worth the discussion. It is under any doubt that ethical issue is losing its relevance at the national scale. The government of each country aims to target the country for the development and improving of its people lives. From this point of view, Kyrgyzstan has the priority right for the dam usage. In the case of the other countries, they are under more adverse conditions due to their location. The government of these countries should be aware of the their position and appropriate problems and make their policy according exicting situation.

    1. You just mentioned a good point, these countries are under adverse conditions just because they are located on the other side of the dam. Do you think is fair for downstream countries not to obtain an equal amount of water just because they are on the other side of the dam?

  19. I think that when the dam affects agriculture significantly that it can actually lead to starvation, what is ethically appropriate is to contact the other countries and make a deal about using the dam but not necessarily sharing control.

    1. Starvation is a problem in the region, people’s life expectancy has dropped to 50 year, which is very low, due to food and water scarcity.

  20. Hi Jose, your paper talks about a very specific situation of a Dam that provides energy to 2 countries.
    I think when we talk about national issues and disputes such as this there are far more variables to consider that just the professional responsibility of engineers.
    I think engineers in this situation possesses one dimension of the problem (the technical one which includes resource availability, etc) but not the whole picture.
    I think, as everything else in the sustainability field, this is a systemic problem and should be treated as systemic.
    Just solving or discussing one side of this equation will not solve the whole problem.
    I hope this helps.
    Thanks, Andrea

    1. The management of this dam requires more analysis, this is why it has been complicated to reach an agreement among the nations because interests from different parties are involved.

  21. But Kyrgyzstan has not ‘fallen.’ The revolution in 2010 was about a lot more than energy and water, and now the country actually has the best political system out of the five stans in Central Asia.

  22. In Central Asia, low rainfall has led to real concerns of drought this summer. The stability of Central Asian nations depends in large part on a steady supply to feed major industries like cotton agriculture. And many analysts think there is real potential for conflict over such an important resource.

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