The ideas mentioned in this article are just an attempt to propose a way out of the system of hydraulic dependence for a huge and resource-rich region. This is a discussion about the potential of a nuclear consortium, along with a critique of hydrocentric energy, write Kubatbek Rakhimov and Alexey Mikhalev.
In the preamble to this article, we decided to include a quote from Karl Wittfogel, one of the most influential humanists of the second half of the twentieth century, who wrote: “Man pursues recognised advantage. Whenever internal or external causes suggest a change in technology, material production, or social relations, he compares the merits of the existing situation with the advantages – and disadvantages – that may accrue from the contemplated change. . . When the sum total of the accruing benefits clearly and convincingly exceeds the required sacrifices, man is willing to make the change. . . [In this decision] the material factor weighs heavily, but its relative importance can be reasonably defined only when full recognition is given to such other values as personal safety, absence of oppression, and time-honoured patterns of thought and action.” These words well illustrate the difficult current situation with access to water and energy sources in the countries of Central Asia.
This region is now home to about 75 million people. In 2022 and 2023, they all faced the threat of a large-scale crisis in the energy sector and the fresh water supply. This is not a coincidence; both of these crises are connected with each other. Water shortages are not only a result of climate change, but also a consequence of the outdated hydropower system, with its seasonal water releases. On the one hand, the outdated, Soviet-built infrastructure has become obsolete in recent years; on the other hand, there are expectations that it will be replaced with a new one, and such projects will be modern, reflecting the latest achievements of science and technology. It is obvious that Russia can become a leader here, promoting initiatives in the field of nuclear energy around the world, including small nuclear power plant projects.
The main advantage of choosing to build a nuclear power plant is that it will avoid the pitfalls of a new hydraulic society based on the dominance of hydroelectric power plants and water release imbalances. Hydraulic society is a term used by Karl Wittfogel to describe the inequality of access to resources and despotic hegemony in ancient Asian societies. New hydraulic societies are possible in modern conditions, when access to water determines inequalities between countries and regions.
Kyrgyzstan accumulates water in the summer, while it is needed for agriculture in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In winter, Kyrgyzstan releases water to generate electricity. As a result, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are forced to save water in the winter. The operation of nuclear reactors would make it possible to avoid such an imbalance in the hydro-scarce regions of Central Asia.
We are talking about the Eurasian geopolitical paradigm, based on which we propose to simulate a situation in which the creation of the Eurasian Atomic Consortium (EAC) is possible. This consortium can only be organised with the active participation of Russia, which is interested in promoting its interests in Central Asia. In fact, the consortium will reconnect the countries of the region with a single idea and a single group of energy networks, once again confirming Russia’s status as an energy superpower. In the future, this project can be successfully combined with China’s “Green Silk Road” strategy. In essence, we are talking about the foundation for the Greater Eurasian Partnership. The development of the EAC will lay the foundations for the transition to a green economy and the reduction of CO2 emissions. First of all, this will become possible due to the abandonment of the use of coal during the heating season. There is a need for such measures, given the severity of weather anomalies: in January 2023, abnormally cold weather was observed in Uzbekistan. The temperature dropped to -17 °C at night and was -8 °C during the day.
In 2023, in response to economic and climate crisis-related changes, a “gas union” was created between Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Commenting on the development of this union, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “This is an enormous trilateral energy project, and it is being implemented using the Central Asia-Centre gas pipeline system, built in the 1960s. <...> Now this pipeline will operate in reverse mode and will reliably meet the needs of the dynamically growing economy of Uzbekistan and, to some extent, Kazakhstan, which is developing at a fast pace and also needs additional energy resources.” Without a doubt, the emergence of this union is an important step in the regional development of the low-carbon direction. It is also important not to forget about improving water-saving technologies. Reliance on nuclear energy, in our opinion, meets these objectives and aptly complements the already established gas union.
In turn, the IAEA notes that the use of nuclear energy can mitigate the effects of climate change in some countries. The IAEA website notes that electricity production at nuclear power plants contributed to the stabilisation of global CO2 emissions in 2019 at the level of 33 gigatons. In this situation, nuclear energy can act as a tool for mitigating not only climate change, but also water availability. However, the construction of nuclear power plants requires a large amount of uranium, which has been mined in the region since Soviet times. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are now on the list of world leaders in the field of uranium mining; both countries are among the top five in terms of mined uranium ore volumes.
In October 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to visit Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Interest in the largest uranium-mining countries is associated with the need to replenish uranium reserves for French nuclear power plants. However, Macron also announced a proposal to build nuclear power plants in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Such a statement underscores at least an attempt to get ahead of Russia in the field of energy initiatives in Central Asia, where energy and geopolitics are so closely interconnected. The Eurasian Nuclear Consortium, which Russia proposed, can become a more successful project in the field of nuclear power plant construction, because the supply of large components for nuclear power plants from Russia to Central Asia and their subsequent assembly is more convenient from a logistics point of view.
Nevertheless, dependence on hydraulic structures, albeit to a lesser extent, will continue to determine geopolitics. Just like thousands of years ago, it will be quite difficult to overcome this dependence, especially in conditions of water scarcity. The problem of access to water resources in Central Asia will most likely require special solutions, which should be the topic of another article. In our case, we analyse only the energy balance that the EAEU countries can achieve, relying on the Eurasian Atomic Consortium. Thanks to this group, it will be possible to significantly reduce the risk of conflicts over access to water.
Thus, the ideas mentioned in this article are just an attempt to propose a way out of the system of hydraulic dependence for a huge and resource-rich region. This is a discussion about the potential of a nuclear consortium, along with a critique of hydrocentric energy. This approach determined the appeal of Wittfogel’s ideas, which can only be valid in relation to the analysis of irrigation determinism in politics. Without a doubt, other ways to ensure water balance, food security, as well as energy stability are possible. Hybrid solutions are also possible; that is, you can only partially use the ideas we have proposed or combine them with some other options for the development of events.