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Nature, Nurture and Values in Development: Water as a Resource in Kazakhstan



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Kuermanaili, Shatanati 


Often, water as an element of the commons, is studied in the field of Resource Economics as common-pool resources (CPRs), a specific type of good. Even if efforts have been made to take an integrated approach (e.g., the two dominant and frequently used concepts – the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and the Water-Food-Energy and Ecosystem Nexus), they are designed for policy makers to select relevant elements in keeping with the models, thereby relegating the local understanding of the key concept to the background. This way of effectively keeping the social-cultural complications in the background is indeed a paradigm that focuses on the utility that subjects to markets and formal constraints without paying attention to the informal and its interactions with the formal institutions and markets. In reality, the commonly shared resources – physical, institutional and cultural – formal and informal, interact with and reinforce each other through commoning. Thus, there is a necessity to widen our understanding of CPRs, in its original meaning of the communal sharing of assets of collective interest and uses it as a mechanism to connect with shared human-made systems. Then, what could be included in this widened understanding of the commons? Three objectives are regarded as collective goods in this integrated understanding of the commons: tangible commons of water, intangible commons of shared identity and culture, and the institutional commons of welfare and security. Empirically, besides archives and online database (the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD) and the International River Cooperation and Conflict database (IRCC)), this study has conducted two stages of multi-sited fieldwork in Kazakhstan (mainly in Almaty and Taraz) in 2018 and 2019 respectively where the empirical evidence presented shows that informal institutions can also be a viable means of governance in serving the common interests. The main body begins with examining the nature of water related conflicts in Central Asia where a general political-economic approach with an assumption of water scarcity tends to write a water war thesis given the current context of incompatibility between the respective demands of the downstream and upstream states. However, if you closely examine, all of five Central Asian countries are not short of water, and more importantly, these studies did not tell us about conflict that are categorized as water conflicts, but are not systematically, or uniquely related to water. After analysing the historical cross-border water interactions, both conflict and cooperation, in the Aral Sea Basin where all Central Asian countries get involved, it suggests that water-related factors (e.g., water scarcity, water allocation, infrastructure etc.) may have created obstacles for cooperation, the linkages between water and other non-water-related factors of the political economy have the potential and capacity to cause conflicts over cross-border river water. Under these circumstances, the Central Asian republics have also managed to forge cooperation over cross-border waters on a bilateral or multilateral basis, each in their own manner. Thus, it argues that rather than fetishizing water conflicts thought, more efforts should be placed to revise the growth of water conflict thoughts and to explore how to govern and address both water-related and non-water-related factors properly and promptly to avoid potential conflict. It then zooms into its ethnographic context – Kazakhstan – to explore why the dichotomy between ‘strategy discourse’ and ‘practice discourse’ regarding water persists in Kazakhstan. Or why do ‘massive’ state water development programmes in Kazakhstan keep failing? It suggests that in Kazakhstan, the existing ‘strategy discourse’ as a top-down process focusing on market and formal constraints only creates claims on property rights, which does not effectively put together all the necessary factors to serve the common interests. Translating the statement into the language of governance, at the centre of current freshwater management system in Kazakhstan is what has been done by the state that does not effectively connect with the local community-possessed socio-cultural resources. Therefore, even if tremendous efforts have been made, the governing government has failed to achieve its strategic aims on the ground. It suggests that socio-cultural resources are community possessions, and thus, it is only at the ‘community level’ that they can have an impact. Only when decision-making over development projects, programmes and implementation is at this community level, can citizens participate and employ their socio-cultural resources in making and ensuring the success of strategic development goals. The proposed, ‘Oртақ’, people’s own understanding of the commons, naturally involves both formal and informal institutions, that is well-positioned to connect to the local community with the government. The explanation proceeds in three chapters corresponding to the proposition: Chapter 4 outlines current strategic guidance of the central state at macro-level where major transformations in the institutional and macroeconomic conditions have been reviewed within which water resources are governed in the country. It follows Chapter 5 examines local responses to these new changes and opportunities both in popular society and among local intellectuals. Particularly, at local level, when it examines local residents’ experiences of ongoing water supply services and the actual outcomes of outsourcing water services to private companies, it reveals the consequence of ‘strategy discourse’ as a top-down process that governs water resources by merely relying on the formal governing structures. It then suggests in Chapter 6 that informal institutions at local level can also be a viable means of governance for public welfare, which might also ensure the success of state’s development projects. Last, the Kazakh state has responded to global call to bring gender’s perspective in developing water policies. This chapter approaches the topic by exploring how the actual happening shifts in gender relations in the region have implications for water development projects that is unlike conventional studies that explore how the changes in water development discourses have specific gendered implications. Therefore, an examination of relatively recent Soviet policies on women and the current ongoing transitions are all of relevant concern. After examining the implications of the actual happening shifts in gender relations for water development projects in the region, it argues that this actual happening shifts in the construction of gender that have added values to water’s development projects, not vice versa as proposed. In sum, this thesis not only provides a holistic picture of water resources governance in Kazakhstan and the relationships between central and local forces and formal and informal institutions but also reveals the upshot of the collapse of socialism to its sequent implementation of neo-liberal policies within both public and domestic spheres.





Saxena, Siddharth


Central Asia, Policy and practice, Water resources governance


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge