Published on Eurasian Perspectives

Leveraging the water-energy nexus to tackle climate challenges in Central Asia

Toktogul Reservoir Toktogul Reservoir

Water and energy are intertwined. It takes tremendous amounts of energy to transport and clean water, with estimates suggesting that energy consumption by water utilities contributes up to 2% of global GHG emissions—the equivalent of the global shipping industry. At the same time, water is a key energy source and integral to energy production—cooling thermal power plants, turning turbines, and growing biofuels.

Getting the balance right at the water-energy nexus is already a challenge, and the climate crisis is only expected to exacerbate this, especially in Central Asia. Already one of the world’s most arid regions, the impact of climate change across Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would drastically impact water availability, threatening these countries’ food security and curtailing hydropower generation. And that kind of scarcity could worsen political tensions over water usage and territorial claims.

Addressing the water-energy nexus is crucial for fighting climate change across Central Asia and ensuring a resilient, sustainable, prosperous future for the region.  Doing so will require a concerted effort by governments to de-energize water services, maximize energy potential, and take an integrated approach based on regional collaboration and cross-sectoral coordination.  

De-energizing water services

Aging Soviet-era infrastructure across Central Asia makes the delivery of water services excessively energy-intensive. Energy costs for water supply and sanitation utilities in the region tend to make up between 30% to 50% of their operating expenses. Meanwhile, in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, energy needs for large-scale pumped irrigation can make up between 10% and 20% of national electricity consumption. Improving performance of existing systems through reductions in water losses and leakages, optimization of operations, reconfiguration of distribution and collection systems, and upgrading to more efficient equipment can greatly reduce the cost of delivering services and generate significant energy savings.

Not only is outdated infrastructure increasingly prone to losses and inefficiencies, some of it was also designed assuming the free flow of energy, water, and commodities across a singular Soviet system. However, since independence, national economic and political incentives no longer align with historic arrangements, making many pumped irrigation schemes across Central Asia costly and uncompetitive.

Maximizing energy potential

Central Asia is rich in renewable energy potential and is a strategic location for regional energy trade, but energy exchange is limited. Hydropower contributes to over 80-90% of total electricity production in Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, but less than 5% of their full hydro-power potential is currently exploited. In fact, they could meet the total energy demands of the entire region many times over. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan rely on fossil fuels for 90% of their energy requirements, leaving significant scope for decarbonization.

Transboundary water-allocation issues and weak regional-cooperation have been key barriers. At the core of this is a mismatch in the timing of water demands for energy and food production. Whereas the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan need water during the winter to generate electricity, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan need it during the summer for agriculture. Addressing this mismatch will be key to achieving the green transition in Central Asia.

Taking an Integrated Approach

Collaboration will be key to addressing the thorny challenges of the water-energy nexus in Central Asia, and the World Bank continues to work closely with the countries of the region and development partners to promote dialogue. Coordination across sectors will also be just as necessary as regional collaboration, to ensure planning and management of water and energy resources are integrated.

To this end, the Central Asia Water and Energy Program (CAWEP) – a partnership between the World Bank, European Commission, Switzerland, and the UK – is supporting regional coordination, strengthening institutional capacities and promoting inter-sectoral integration to help achieve regional energy and water security in Central Asia.  CAWEP works with various different organizations to promote regional cooperation for resilient and sustainable development, and will be co-hosting the 5th Central Asia Climate Change Conference – 2023: “Climate Change and Development in Central Asia” being held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on 16-17 May 2023.  The conference will bring together the representatives of Central Asian countries, international organizations, and experts to discuss further actions to address climate change issues with the focus on water and energy development across the region.

Promoting a holistic view of water and energy systems is the only way to ensure green, resilient, and inclusive development across the region. While competition over water and energy resources is a potent source of conflict, coordinating on water and energy security has immense potential to catalyze cooperation and development. 


Tatiana Proskuryakova

Regional Director for Central Asia

Winston Yu

Practice Manager, Water, Europe and Central Asia

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