Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Pamir Paradox: Water Insecurity and Hunger at the Source of Central Asia's Rivers

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Pamir Paradox: Water Insecurity and Hunger at the Source of Central Asia's Rivers

Article excerpt

The Pamir Mountains rise seven kilometers above sea level. On the summits which separate Tajikistan from China--Communism Peak (7495m) and the Peak of Revolution (6974m)--as well as the highest points in Afghanistan--Nowshak (7485m) and Tirgaran (6843m)--lie both the source and the solution to many of Central Asia's challenges: snow. After the ice caps are weighed down by winter powder, spring melting fills streams that feed the Valdash, Bartang, Kowcheh, and Vakhan tributaries, and eventually the Panj River. Millions of people in the Aral Basin depend on this water.

Hydrologist Marc-Andre Bunzli suggests that air pollution in South and Southeast Asia and global warming are contributing to a "drying of Asia." (1) Indeed, in contrast to South Asia, where flooding has become more frequent, drought and high temperatures are increasingly common in the shadow of the Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges of Central Asia. This change in climate has the detrimental effects of reducing rainfall and snow drainage, and of increasing water. (2) Much of the Vakhsh and Panj water that does make it into the Aral Basin is either held by the Rogun dam and other unfinished hydroelectric power projects, or diverted by large, inefficient irrigation systems for cotton production. (3) On the Afghan side of the Panj, the Kunduz-Khanabad Irrigation System, a project sponsored by the World Bank and the government of India that was never completed, diverts large amounts of water for rice growing at Kunduz. (4) Several years of drought induced the erosion of river banks and levees. (5) When rains finally returned to the Panj Valley, flooding wiped out large portions of the new crop. (6)

The Afghan and Tajik civil wars, which ended only recently, killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated regional infrastructure and economies, leaving many families unprepared to cope with crop failures. Today, as a result of inefficient agricultural systems and drought, nearly 5 million people in the region depend on foreign food aid even though they live at the continent's main water source. Although aid agencies have provided enough assistance to prevent massive starvation in Central Asia and have helped the governments begin to recover from war, the root causes of food shortages require deeper intervention. Only after governments, locals, and aid organizations make the correct investments to secure water access for the poor will famine conditions be permanently averted in the region.


Famine can be defined as an emergency in which large numbers of people die due to malnutrition-related infections and disorders. Without the correct amount and variety of food, the human body relies on existing muscle and fat for energy. While few people die because of insufficient calorie intake during famine--sufferers often resort to eating unconventional foods like weeds--most succumb to infections their bodies no longer have the capacity to fight. In his book Poverty and Famines, Amartya Sen shows that famine conditions are not just a product of drought and food shortage, but also of rights disparities. (7) Conflicts like those experienced in Central Asia over the last three decades only exacerbate disparities between economic classes, genders, and social groups, which can lead to breakdowns in the affordability of and access to basic household goods in times of need.

Securing people's right to food--as protected by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which both the Afghan and Tajik governments are signatories--is key to reducing famine conditions, particularly in poor communities. The right to water, which is protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and within the region's Islamic tradition, serves as the legal foundation for food security strategies such as market intervention, land reform, employment protection schemes, and the distribution of food during shortages. (8)

If the collection and distribution of snow drainage, rain water, and ground water function in such a way that benefits some more than others, then those who lack access to water can produce less food on the land they have and may be forced to leave that land during a drought to seek other sources of livelihood. …

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