Under Pressure: Resource Scarcity and The Specter of Radicalization in Central Asia


The issue of Islamist terrorism in Central Asia has gained international attention recently, with the news that the main suspect in the October 31st terrorist attack in New York City, Sayfullo Saipov, was originally from Uzbekistan. Many accounts of why and how Central Asians have become radicalized by the Islamic State focus on repressive governments and a lack of religious freedom throughout the region. Dissatisfaction with social and political conditions is a motivating factor with regards to extremism, but extremism is not as rampant in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan specifically, as recent coverage would suggest. In fact, most Central Asian perpetrators of terrorist acts were radicalized after they left the region. Saipov himself was radicalized in the United States. The few attacks committed by Uzbeks over the past few years have more “lone wolf” characteristics than indications of a greater hotbed of terrorist activity. An issue that is often left unexamined can explain more about why some Central Asians who leave the region turn to extremism. Resource scarcity, especially scarcity of already limited water resources, has the potential to exacerbate existing identity-based conflicts and overburden the capacity of Central Asian governments to effectively deal with those conflicts. A significant problem in its own right, scarcity also creates conditions that can lead to radicalization.

The best place to examine this phenomenon is in the Fergana Valley. Fergana has been a flashpoint for ethnic conflict since the area was divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan under the Soviet Union. Although the twisted borders that trisect the valley seem senseless, they were carefully designed to prevent the rise of a viable political challenger to Moscow in Central Asia. Because borders between Soviet republics under centralized administrative control did not hinder freedom of movement, the consequences of this decision would not be fully realized until the fall of the Soviet Union.

After the five former Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics gained independence in 1991, the rambling Fergana borders took on a new and troublesome significance. Reinforced by nascent nationalism, travel between countries was restricted and arbitrary demarcations were rigidly enforced. The Fergana Valley holds some of Uzbekistan’s most fertile agricultural land as well as a disproportionate percentage of its population— 26.9 percent to 4.3 percent of the country’s total land area. Uzbekistan relies heavily on its Fergana-based cotton industry and is one of the top cotton-producing countries globally. During the Soviet era, the limited water sources that irrigated the valley and its fields were managed under a large-scale resource sharing system.

Water-sharing under the Soviet Union was essentially a barter system. Central Asia’s two largest rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, originate in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and then flow parallel to each other across the steppe. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan are located downstream and rely on the upstream countries to store water in dams for release in the spring and summer months. In exchange for the ability to irrigate their crops, the downstream countries provided Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with electricity, coal, and other thermal resources. With Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan lacking surplus electricity midway through the 1990s, the arrangement collapsed a few short years after the end of Soviet rule.

Now, absent a unified water management system, even one geared towards maximizing water-intensive cotton production, tensions between upstream and downstream countries have grown. Uzbekistan has opposed Tajikistan’s construction of the Rogun Dam on a major tributary of the Amu Darya since the plan’s inception. The late Uzbek President Islam Karimov declared on multiple occasions that Rogun, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s proposed Kambarata-I Dam on the Naryn River, could lead to war in Central Asia. Turkmenistan’s fancifully named “Golden Age Lake” project has drawn further ire as the immense amount of water needed to complete the artificial lake may require Turkmenistan to siphon water from the Syr Darya. There are also fears that Golden Age Lake will evaporate soon after being filled, recalling the predicament of the Aral Sea which has shrunk by 90 percent in the past half-century. The Kerkidan reservoir, once shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, is little more than a puddle. In Central Asia, as in the rest of the world, control of water means greater economic prosperity and security. Uzbekistan finds itself in the precarious position of supporting a vast and costly cotton industry while neighboring states pull from its already strained water supply.

Compounding this budding crisis are astounding population projections for Central Asia. Although most post-Soviet states are facing dismal population declines, all five Central Asian countries will see varying degrees of growth. Between 2015 and 2100, the United Nations predicts that Tajikistan will have a population growth of 119 percent, followed by Kyrgyzstan with a projected growth of 52 percent. Uzbekistan is the only Fergana Valley state that will not see growth in the double digits, but the overall population boom slated for the valley is significant enough to cause concern. A declining population creates challenges, but an enormous population increase in an already fraught region comes with its own set of problems, including placing a further burden on the availability of land and water.

Migrant labor has always been a safety valve for the pressures of overpopulation and unemployment. Congruent with this fact, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan all receive the equivalent of billions of dollars in remittances from migrant workers. As of 2016, some 20 percent of the labor force of Uzbekistan works in Russia, Kazakhstan, or a Western country. However, in the last few years, Russia has mandated that workers from non-member nations of the Eurasian Economic Union, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are no longer allowed to enter Russia without an international passport. This is part of a Russian effort to put pressure on states that have not yet joined the Union. Since Russia is a primary destination for migrant workers, the new visa regime delivered a hard blow to economies and unemployment rates in Central Asia. In his testimony during a 2015 Helsinki Commission hearing on “The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia,” Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia at the U.S. State Department, clarified the link between migrant labor and radicalization. Lacking the supportive family and community structures of home and facing discrimination and isolation in Russia, Central Asian laborers are extremely susceptible to the tactics of extremist recruiters.

As Thomas Homer-Dixon emphasizes in his book Environment, Scarcity, and Violence, environmental scarcity is not a sufficient motivator of violence on its own, but it can be powerful when combined with specific social and political factors. In the Fergana Valley, existing ethnic tensions cause disputes over land and water to escalate into violent conflict. The 1990 Osh Riots erupted over a plot of farmland in the Fergana Valley claimed by both the Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minority. Almost exactly twenty years later, the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan Riots saw violence explode after the ousting of former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Many Uzbeks living in Kyrgyz regions of the valley have since turned to migrant labor in Russia to escape discrimination from Kyrgyz authorities. Osh is now one of the largest sources of Uzbek Islamic State fighters in Central Asia.
There’s an unwise tendency in the aftermath of a terrorist attack to generalize about the perpetrator or perpetrators. However, this reaction should not come at the expense of an entire group of people, or an entire region of the world. U.S.-Uzbekistan relations are currently stronger and more open than they have been in decades as a result of the efforts of new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Another hopeful development has been the new Uzbek administration’s position on the Rogun Dam issue. As Tajikistan restarted construction in the wake of former President Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan remained silent on what was once a possible path to war. This symbolic inaction may pave the way for future water-sharing agreements, or possibly a reworking of the old Soviet system to suit a more modern economy. A stable economy and more employment for a growing population can reduce the need for migrant labor and in turn reduce the opportunity for radicalization. But more importantly, eliminating the economic instability and resource insecurity that is an ever-present danger in Central Asia will create opportunities for the region to be known for more than the actions of a few individuals. Uzbekistan faces many issues, but the Islamic State is not chief among them.