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The issue of water quality in Central Asia presents significant importance from many perspectives: drinking water supply, household use, irrigation, fisheries and maintaining ecosystems sustainability.


Water quality and pollution

Pollution of surface and groundwater is a serious problem in Central Asia. The quality of water from surface sources is low as a result of discharges of insufficiently treated and untreated sewage from populated localities and industrial plants, as well as from industrial accidents. Also, irrigation and use of fertilizers, manure and pesticides in agriculture have led to increased salinity and pollution of water and groundwater by nitrates, phosphorus, and pesticides.

According to data produced within Regional Water Intelligence Report Central Asia (Stockholm International Water Institute, 2010): “Salinity, fertilizers, agro-chemicals and uranium tailings are major regional water quality issues. Water generated in the mountain areas is of high quality, with salinity levels generally in the range 0.15 to 0.25 g/l. Salinity levels increase with progression downstream, as a result mainly of the salt load in the return flows from irrigated areas discharged via the collector drains. Thus, in the lower reaches of the two main rivers, there have been significant increases in salinity over time with the expansion of irrigation. Salinity levels have now stabilized, and over the decade 1991-2000 there was a drop in mean annual values of salinity in the middle and lower reaches of both the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. This is attributed to decreased drainage flows related to changed water management”.


Quality of drinking water

Quality of drinking water is poor. More than one third of the population of Central Asia is using drinking water that does not meet hygiene standards, and in some regions this proportion can exceed 50% (OECD/EAP TF, 2003). There are problems particularly with maintaining safe microbiological standards, but nitrates contamination, which affects especially children, is also a problem. Microbiological contamination is largely due to deficient infrastructure and the failure of disinfection schemes.

Drinking water supply in Son-Kul', Kyrgyzstan


Physical conditions of water and sanitation networks

Water systems in the region are characterized by deteriorating sanitary condition of the reservoirs; problems with the purification and disinfection of water in the water supply systems (including shortage of chemicals for purification and inadequate laboratory equipment), unsatisfactory state of repair of the water supply networks and their proximity to sewage pipes – leading to the leakage of sewage into water networks

The quality of service is deteriorating. Pipe breaks and leakage are increasing and the continuity of service is decreasing, which is a major cause of water contamination.


Safety and sustainability of drinking water supply systems in rural areas

The special necessity for the Central Asian states is improvement of healthcare via improvement of drinking water supply systems to ensure access to high quality drinking water for all with respect to safety, reliability, efficiency and financial sustainability.

However, the majority of drinking water supply systems are in poor condition and need to be rehabilitated or reconstructed and this is particularly relevant for rural areas. According to assessments conducted, about 25% of settlements have no access to piped water systems. About 55% of settlements receive water from piped water supply systems for less than 6 hours per day and only 10% have access to safe water. The drinking water supply services are unable to ensure the level of safety required and many rural settlements consume water from irrigation canals. Existing drinking water supply systems for rural areas need to be either rehabilitated or replaced.


Economic and financial issues

Water prices have increased significantly since 1990, but they do not yet cover the full operational and maintenance costs, let alone generate a return on investment.

Domestic sector investment has been insignificant for over a decade. The owners of the water and sanitation systems (central or sub-national governments) have largely stopped investing in them, and private finance stays away due to weak institutional frameworks and unfavorable investment climates.



Read more on water quality issues from the CAREC website: UNECE Initiative "Water Quality in Central Asia". The Project is implemented in cooperation with CAREC. It aims at enhancing development of an efficient and harmonized policy in water quality improvement in view of integrated water resources management in Central Asia.

Diagnostic Report and Cooperation Development Plan "Towards Development of Regional Cooperation in Ensuring Water Quality in Central Asia" was prepared as part of project activities. The Plan was launched in a side-event during the Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Astana

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), and the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), in partnership with the members of UN Water produced Report “Sick water? The central role of wastewater management in sustainable development”. The Report not only identifies the threats to human and ecological health and the consequences of inaction, but also presents opportunities, where appropriate policy and management responses over the short and longer term can trigger employment, support livelihoods, boost public and ecosystem health and contribute to more intelligent water management.


Report is available from UNEP Grid Arendal website

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