TASHKENT -- A catastrophic dam break in Uzbekistan earlier this month that also caused damage in Kazakhstan has strengthened relations between the leaders of the two countries as they work together to mitigate the impact of the disaster.
The disaster on the morning of May 1 flooded vast areas in Sirdaryo (Syrdarya) Province of Uzbekistan. It affected about 90,000 residents and killed six. Then the water rushed to the neighbouring Maktaaral District, Turkistan Province, Kazakhstan, where rescuers evacuated more than 30,000 inhabitants.
It will cost Uzbekistan 1.5 trillion UZS ($150 million) to restore the losses caused by the flooding, according to official estimate. Kazakhstan estimates damage to its agriculture sector at 4.1 billion KZT ($9.7 million).
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, reached out to each other the day after the incident to discuss how to deal with the flooding that resulted from the dam break, according to a statement on Mirziyoyev's website.
On May 6, Uzbekistan sent 200 specialists to Maktaaral District, Kazakhstan, including firefighters, technicians and rescuers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations. In addition, it sent 169 vehicles to help with the disaster, such as fire engines, excavators, tractors, trucks and buses.
Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov traveled to Kazakhstan to personally monitor assistance to that nation, arriving May 10 in Maktaaral District, where he conferred with Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin.
The two prime ministers looked over the construction plan for a new micro-district in the village of Myrzakent, met with local residents and took part in a foundation-laying ceremony for the first apartment buildings.
On May 17, the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan spoke by phone and discussed their mutual satisfaction over the cleanup work completed so far.
"The presidents emphasised the importance of continuing close co-operation to overcome new challenges and shared threats," Mirziyoyev's press office said in a statement.
On the same day, Mirziyoyev acknowledged that the disaster was man-made, though investigation of the causes is continuing. To avoid a recurrence, Uzbekistan permitted Kazakh officials to inspect the dam.
Water has been an area of tension between the two countries in the past.
"For decades, water remained the most fraught topic in relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Especially the allocation of water from the Syrdarya river basin, which the Sardoba Reservoir is a part of," said Tashkent-based political analyst Valerii Khan.
History of tension
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been working over the past two years to sign an intergovernmental agreement on the joint management and use of rivers, but the document remains unsigned.
"Moreover, there have long been border disputes around the Maktaaral District, which has a semi-enclave that 'encroaches' into Uzbekistan's territory," Khan adde. "It passed from one republic to another several times during the Soviet era. For almost 27 years, Uzbeks were unable to use the Tashkent-Samarkand highway that runs through this region, making for a long detour."
This tension played out again immediately following the dam incident, said Tashkent resident Anora Sapayeva.
"Immediately after the water reached Kazakhstan [after the dam break], tension arose in social networks," Sapayeva said. "Residents of Kazakhstan began to blame Uzbeks, and Uzbeks recalled old grievances. I had the feeling that this was the beginning of a conflict."
Despite some citizens' apprehensions, the two countries demonstrated the importance of neighbourly co-operation and goodwill by working to resolve the issue without conflict.
Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry declined to send a note of protest to Uzbekistan in connection with the flooding of Kazakh territory.
In Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev apologised for the damage suffered by Kazakhstan and emphasised the deep history and friendly relations the country shares with its neighbour.
"For a long time, we have lived side by side with the fraternal Kazakh people," Mirziyoyev said on May 5 during a meeting with his cabinet. "We have drunk water from the same river, and we are close, like relatives. We have always stood shoulder to shoulder and supported each other, both on bright days and during trying times."
"We are very sorry that this unexpected man-made disaster has caused so much trouble and harm not only to our population but also to our neighbours, our brothers, whose villages and crops were damaged too," he added.
In the meantime, officials from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are working together to determine the future of the Sardoba Reservoir.
"A technical inspection of the Sardoba Reservoir will be conducted with the involvement of international and... Kazakh experts. Based on the results, a [we] will make a decision regarding the fate of this facility," Magzum Mirzagaliyev, Kazakh minister of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources, said at a meeting with Uzbek Water Resources Minister Shavkat Khamraev in Shymkent, Tengrinews.kz reported May 14.
The ministers also agreed to finally sign an intergovernmental agreement on water resource management aimed at helping both countries avoid water problems in the future.