A simmering water dispute between Astana and Bishkek is heating up, with Kyrgyzstan threatening to cut electricity to its neighbor and reportedly accusing Kazakh officials of attempted extortion – then denying it.
The dispute escalated on July 29 when Kyrgyzstan’s energy minister alleged, according to both Kyrgyz and Kazakh media reports, that unnamed Kazakh officials had attempted to bribe him during water and energy negotiations.
“They openly offered a bribe for the sale of energy at a low price to Kazakhstani consumers,” Osmonbek Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by CA-News.org. Kyrgyz negotiators “managed to hold out,” he was reported to have said.
On July 30, Artykbayev denied ever making such an accusation, using the time-honored explanation that reporters had distorted his words. He said he had been explaining how his ministry had stepped up the fight against corruption in the energy sector. “Unfortunately my words about the fight against corruption were incorrectly interpreted in individual media outlets,” Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Last month Artykbayev threatened to halt electric power exports to Kazakhstan, citing a water shortage. “It’s a difficult question, but there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir, and we are faced with the question of supplying our own population,” Tengri News quoted him as saying on June 27. Kyrgyzstan generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
On July 24, Kyrgyzstan hiked the price of electric power exports to Kazakhstan by 43 percent from 2.8 cents per kilowatt-hour to 4 cents. Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev said that Kyrgyzstan had 2 billion less cubic meters of water available than last year.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – which usually enjoy good relations – have been at odds over water this summer. Earlier this month a land dispute on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border led protestors in northwestern Kyrgyzstan to block the flow of water to Kazakhstan, stranding residents and farmers over the border without water for 10 days until Astana protested. (The Kyrgyz government had good reason to intervene, since the protestors were also blocking water supplies to Kyrgyz villages downstream.)
Kyrgyzstan is embracing ambitious hydropower projects that it hopes will eventually make it a major power exporter. At the moment its only export market is Kazakhstan – so Bishkek may wish to think twice before turning off the taps.