Ambassador Terhi Hakala, the EU Special Representative (EUSR) for Central Asia, was in Dushanbe to participate in 3rd High-Level International Conference on International Decade for Action "Water for Sustainable Development", 2018-2028,which took place here on June 10-13.   

Asia-Plus talked to Ambassador Terhi Hakala to discuss water resource management issues, projects and priorities of EU’s cooperation with Central Asia. 


Water Should Be a Priority, as It's About Life"

Q. How Does the European Union View Water Resource Management in Central Asia? How Do You Assess the Environmental Situation in the Region, Especially in the Context of Climate Change and Its Impact on Water Resources?

A. Currently, we are facing a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis, and a water crisis. This affects food supply, health, and agriculture, among other possible consequences. We view the water sector in a regional context since water issues are transboundary.

Tajikistan, as an upstream country, has ample water resources. However, climate change continues to affect melting glaciers, and in the long term, we must address these issues now to prevent the situation from worsening. Pollution and unsustainable practices complicate this picture.

We consider all sectors in parallel and work with Tajikistan on climate change, biodiversity, pollution, and, of course, water resources. Tajikistan is a mountainous country with only a small portion of land designated for agriculture, but the country needs proper irrigation systems to ensure food security.

Our key phrase would be integrated water resources management to address the entire hydrological cycle. We need planning and policies in all sectors, especially considering the needs for food and energy security, water accessibility, and environmental protection.

There is an old notion that water is free, which is not true. It is a basic human right. We should all have access to water, but in reality, it is quite expensive. We need to use new water-saving technologies, but we also need to teach people to use water consciously – for example, taking shorter showers, less than 15 minutes, to save water.

The global water crisis and climate change are some of the main challenges worldwide. Experts state that there is still enough water for the entire Central Asian region. There are sufficient resources, but they are not used wisely due to old infrastructure.

The situation with the Aral Sea in this region affects not only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan but the entire region. Cooperation with neighboring states is essential. Since we are participating in the Dushanbe Water Process, we need to take urgent steps.

It is important for the leadership, especially in Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon, to understand that water should be a priority because it concerns life, future generations, and guaranteeing life for all – this is related to health issues, food security.

With the problems and extreme consequences of climate change, the EU is helping with risk reduction mechanisms in the region, working together with other international institutions such as UN agencies, OSCE, to enhance community resilience.

Another danger we see is the melting glaciers, not only here but also in the Alps. Next year has been declared the International Year of Glaciers by the UN, initiated by Tajikistan. It is crucial for the entire region to make a significant move towards cleaner energy and technology because it exists.


Women and girls suffer the most from lack of clean water

Q. What projects or initiatives on water resource management does the European Union support or plan to support in Central Asia?

A. The European Union has various mechanisms and funding opportunities. There is the "TeamEurope" initiative on water, energy, and climate. These issues are interconnected and must be addressed together. The initiative includes EU institutions such as the Commission and European banks.

EU member states also have bilateral projects; for example, Germany is one of the leading countries developing environmental and water sectors here, along with the Netherlands, France, and many others, also involving the private sector, as European water management technologies and climate-resilient technologies are quite advanced. The initiative also involves civil society as a very important actor in this regard.

There is direct funding provided to the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). This assistance supports the entire Aral Sea region, mitigating all negative consequences of the disappearing Aral Sea for the environment and population of the region, creating a foundation for strengthening regional cooperation in this regard.

The President and Government of Tajikistan always emphasize that Tajikistan is "green" in terms of using green hydropower, and this is true.  As representatives of "TeamEurope," we support the green transition of the entire Central Asian region.

We are implementing the "Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project." In rural areas, access to water remains a problem. In this context, let me also emphasize that women and girls suffer the most from the lack of safe and clean drinking water. For example, the need to fetch water from wells can prevent girls from attending school. The lack of water and sanitation affects women and girls overall. It is very important to have toilets for girls in schools, which will be safe places; thus, water can sometimes be an element that hinders girls from attending schools.

Another project, "Improvement of Water Resource Management and Irrigation," supports institutional reforms in the irrigation sector, promoting the use of alternative technologies and using less water for sufficient agricultural production.


Everyone must adopt the mindset that water is important

Q. What are the main priorities of the European Union in cooperation with Central Asia regarding the environment and water resource management?

A. We have already touched upon the priorities in our conversation. But let me emphasize again that we are facing a climate, biodiversity, and water crisis.

Using the example of the Aral Sea, we see that salinization can become a real problem, leading to rapid evaporation of water. There are methods to plant certain types of trees to retain more water in the soil, which can somewhat halt and reverse the salinization process.

The EU works with other partners, some of the EU member states, providing funding and working in these areas to consider afforestation and reverse some of the negative consequences. Nature itself provides solutions to these problems. The ecological balance in our countries helps retain more water, making it available for human life, for all of us.

There is one message I would very much like to convey through your media agency. The media plays a crucial role in educating people. We all face challenges related to water and other natural resources. Governments can and should do a lot on global and regional levels. But individual responsibility cannot be denied.

Each of us must adopt the mindset that water is important. We need to strive to save water and use it more wisely. How we use water, how we dispose of trash in bins rather than on the streets – all this matters. Through our behavior, we create our tomorrow for our future generations.