Mountains of Central Asia


What does the future hold for this forgotten region? 

By Action Against Hunger

Mar 30 2017

The Ferghana Valley is located at the fertile confluence of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Ethnic groups straddle the borders of these 3 countries --  ethnic Uzbeks can be found in Tajikistan (31%) and Kyrgyzstan (27%), and ethnic Tajiks also reside in Uzbekistan. The Central Asian region may not often be discussed in Western media, nor is it the highest priority on the international humanitarian agenda, but looming and impactful environmental, economic, and security risks will require thoughtful coordination from humanitarian actors in the coming years.


While poorly drawn borders did not matter under the Soviet Union’s collectivized agriculture, the now separate nations are competing for limited water and land to sustain their agricultural sectors. Uzbekistan, for example, is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton, a water-intensive crop. It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce the 1kg of cotton needed to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.[1]  Hydroelectric power dams built by the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan upstream on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers (the main sources of water in the region) have meant that less water reaches Uzbekistan downstream where it is needed for agricultural production, including cotton. Soviet-era resource-sharing agreements (e.g.: Uzbeks provided energy resources to the Kyrgyz and Tajiks in exchange for water) have fallen apart with no viable alternatives, causing rising resentment between the Ferghana Valley’s countries and ethnic communities.

Climate Change

Climate change –bringing irregular weather and unpredictable flooding– has exacerbated the region’s water access and agriculture problems. The Valley is also highly susceptible to earthquakes, which can cause landslides, avalanches, and mudslides. Although the international community has made considerable investments in reinforcing government capacity of disaster risk reduction (DRR), farmers are depleting household savings to cope with ever more regular environmental hazards. With global aid focused on the Middle East, countries of the Ferghana Valley will need to cooperate to promote long-term economic development and build resilience in the face of environmental uncertainty.

An unemployed youth, poor governance and ISIS

The region’s economic and political trends, however, are not promising. A growing young population (an average of 30% of people are under 30 years old) is facing high unemployment, and finding it more difficult to follow the historical tendency to seek opportunities in neighboring Russia, due to the depreciation of the ruble and new restrictions on foreign workers. Inefficient infrastructure for water, transportation, and electricity is causing further discontent: in poor neighborhoods of the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, for instance, residents can spend hours carrying water home. In terms of politics, governments are becoming more autocratic. In Tajikistan for instance, President Rahmon has now removed all legal obstacles to continue his rule indefinitely, and lowered the eligibility for the presidency to allow his son to succeed him. Across the region, leaders are using rhetoric to stoking the flames of ethnic tensions – in order to divert attention from their own failings. They are also striving to suppress dissenting forms of political Islam: Rhamon’s government has targeted men sporting long beards and women wearing hijabs, and has banned the largest opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, by labeling it a terrorist organization and sentencing two of its leaders to life imprisonment.

In this context, those most marginalized in the region (especially those living in neighboring countries, isolated from their support networks, trying to make a living) are at risk of being recruited by extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). By January 2016, between 2000 and 4000 Central Asian citizens were estimated to have joined ISIS to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria[2]. Given the US’s lack of interest in Central Asia, Russia’s current financial constraints, and the European Union’s inability to agree on a DRR policy, it is unclear who would step in to support the disaster preparedness and long-term development that the region needs[3]. China’s investment in infrastructure in Central Asian countries is filling this gap and challenging Russia’s dominance in the region. Changes in national leadership might also prompt much-needed regional cooperation, as is the case with the newly-elected Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is pushing for a degree of market integration.

In this highly interdependent region, the countries sharing the Ferghana Valley would benefit immensely from greater coordination in the face of increasing environmental, economic, and security challenges. With global powers disengaging from the region, humanitarian actors working in Central Asia could have an important role in encouraging greater dialogue and joint action between these countries as they tackle interconnected risks in a shifting geopolitical environment.


Read the IARANs full report Ferghana Valley Five Year Humanitarian Trends Assessment here.

[1] World Wildlife Fund, 2003. Accessed here, on 29/03/17

[2] These are likely to have been recruited via the Central Asian franchise of IS Wilayat Khorosan, or through Chechen networks in Russia, and/or online (for those living abroad). The three countries named above are just some of the conflicts in which recruits are likely to be fighting in.

[3] Short-term emergency aid will likely still be covered.

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