The Soviet era brought heavy industrialization of the agriculture sector in Central Asia (CA), aiming at the expansion of cotton (called “white gold”) cultivation but also at an increase in cereals and other staple crops. The need to produce sufficient cotton fabric for the USSR, achieve food security and employability for local communities and for settlers from other Soviet Republics revolutionized agricultural production in CA. A major focus was given to fostering education about agricultural water management in the region by establishing, as early as in 1923, the currently named Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers, the second largest institute of its kind in the USSR after Moscow.
The ‘’hydraulic mission’’ in CA peaked from the early 50s till the 80s with the construction of enormous hydraulic engineering infrastructures like the Karakum Canal (1,375km in length - one of the longest water supply canals worldwide), which were to blame for the desiccation of the Aral Sea. The infrastructures in CA consisted of reservoirs, channelization, embankments, intensive irrigation, often supported by the use of pump stations for drilling groundwater but also for diverting freshwater to numerous primary and secondary canals. The two major rivers of Amu Darya and Syr Darya, together with their tributaries, were heavily exploited by discharging continuously less water to the Aral Sea into which they were emptying, and leading to the salinization and creation of the Aralkum Desert with insurmountable costs to the entire Aral Sea basin.
The Tajik and Kyrgyz SSRs, into which more than 80% of the entire Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers flow, were regulating the water discharged through reservoirs, providing abundant agricultural water supply during the summer in the Uzbek and secondarily Kazakh and Turkmen SSRs and avoiding flooding incidents in the winter season. The water released from the Tajik and Kyrgyz sides was compensated for by energy (mainly coal) provision, mostly in winter and food (staple crops) supply from the lowland SSRs by creating a large interdependence between CA republics and framing the regionalization concept. CA was one of the few regions worldwide where a water-energy-food (WEF) nexus concept was introduced, yet without considering the irreversible damages being done to the very same water sources that made the region progress. The severe impacts were known from Gorbachev’s era, but the Soviet collapse increased the magnitude of the Aral disaster as there was no funding to mitigate and partly reverse the drying up process.
In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991, the by then independent CA countries strove for water security by requesting their own share in the Aral basin according to national priorities. The upstream and poorer countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were struggling to increase their hydropower potential and provide sufficient domestic energy especially in the winter season. For this reason, the existent reservoirs upstream were switched from agricultural to hydropower mode by collecting water in spring and summer and releasing water in the winter. The downstream countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, requested to retain their agricultural water shares from Soviet times and were dismayed by the switch of the upstream reservoirs to hydropower mode, as the decrease in water could lead to droughts in summer and floods in winter. The rhetoric of the former Uzbek President Islam Karimov about 10 years ago on potential water conflicts in case of hydropower expansion in the upstream countries was of major concern for the entire region.
Even in those hard times, it was understood that although national priorities took precedence over regionalization, the inherent transboundary water complexity and Soviet legacy of commonly shared systems could not be neglected. Mirziyoyev’s regime in Uzbekistan has sent clear messages of reconciliation with upstream countries by encouraging regionalization initiatives on energy-water and food systems in CA and proposing to support the construction of multi-purpose reservoirs upstream in exchange for benefit-sharing on energy and irrigation supply. Regional cooperation initiatives have been also taken in Kazakhstan by further focusing on Aral restoration though the well-known revival of the “smaller Aral” or North Aral Sea as it is better known. Climate change accelerates the need for regionalization as glaciers in Pamir and Tien Shan largely hosted in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are quite susceptible to weather extremes and are bound to heavily affect water systems in CA.
The lesson learnt from the previous and current restoration initiatives is that unless a regional approach is followed on water conservation, agricultural policy, and water priorities among CA countries, efforts will hardly come to fruition. Regionalization has to be prioritized not only for the mitigation of the Aral Sea desertification but for the re-ignition of a water-energy-food-climate approach to support the economic growth and robustness of CA countries by also improving the conservation of the lifeline waterways in the region.
A recent study indicated the importance of water security and priorities for each CA country by suggesting how they could reconcile their national interests through a commonly approved framework on water and its pertinent energy, food and climate implications. Freshwater sources are the major component for regionalization and the trigger for CA countries to take advantage of their enormous geostrategic potential, natural resources and high knowledge capacity for reinstating as much as possible of the Aral Sea and avoiding similar disasters in future.
 As noted in Abdullaev et al (2020) ‘’The history of water development in Aral Sea Basin is a paradigm of a hydraulic mission. The hydraulic mission means the ideology of conquering water resources, constructing and enhancing nature for the needs of human society by engineering infrastructure (capturing, delivering and using) and other means’’ Abdullaev, I., Wegerich, K., Kazbekov, J. (2020). History of water management in the Aral Sea Basin, In: Xenarios, S., Schmidt-Vogt, D., Qadir, M., Janusz-Pawletta, B., Abdullaev, I. (eds.), The Aral Sea basin: water for sustainable development in Central Asia. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 86-99.