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Swiss neutrality plays "unique" role in aid

Water is an increasingly scarce resource in Central Asia

Water experts meeting in Switzerland have counted the country's political neutrality as an essential factor in making development projects work in Central Asia.

Switzerland's development principles are valued by those on the ground and could be used as model by other governments planning to invest in projects in the region, an official with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) told swissinfo.

"Now all big donors acknowledge the Swiss approach," Omina Islamova, the manager of water programmes for the SDC in Central Asia, told an annual conference on Swiss cooperation in eastern Europe and Central Asia.

"Swiss sponsorship is unique," said Victor Dukhovni, an executive with the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia, a body set up to manage scarce resources in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

"It is independent," he told swissinfo. "Swiss sponsorship does not seek out any political interest. It only involves the real implementation of Swiss know-how, Swiss experience and the Swiss approach to nature. They do not press on us to do this or that, they trust us to select what is best."

"We do not have strategic interests in the region. This might not be the case for other countries," said Martin Dahinden, the SDC's director-general.

He said water projects were an important part of the SFr1.3 billion ($1.1 billion) organisation's aid portfolio for eastern European countries and Central Asia.

Grassroots involvement

Switzerland aims to bring a combination of technical knowledge and experience fine-tuning water management systems to projects including resource management, sanitation, urban water supplies and hydropower, Dahinden said.

The SDC considers grassroots involvement and capacity building as key to the process of creating long-term sustainability of resources.

"The main point of the Swiss approach has been that we should be using local expertise, not foreign expertise," Islamova explained.

"This local expertise is crucial for the successful implementation of water programmes. When we finish our contribution, the local population will be able to continue on."

Experts from the region told the conference in Solothurn, in northwestern Switzerland, that the increasing scarcity of water was becoming a challenge in the development sector, particularly in Central Asia.

They say that climate change, population growth and changed in agricultural patterns have taken their toll on resources, and that sustainable and more efficient management will be crucial to the future security of the region.

Consequences

The consequences of inaction include rising food prices, environmental crises and, worryingly for neighbouring countries, an increased potential for conflict.

Switzerland acknowledged the link between water management and the security of Central Asia in its foreign policy back in the early 1990s and started water projects there in 1996.

"So what we are going to do is introduce good methods of agriculture and of water use, so people can produce more with less water," said Islamova.

"We are trying to prevent a crisis in water resources in this area," she added.

It remains important to continue supporting the region, Johannes Linn, executive director at the United States-based Wolfensohn Center for Development, told the conference, warning that the stability of Central Asia affected Europe.

"Central Asia is an important bridge to economic integration for the Eurasian continent. A peaceful agreement among Central Asian countries on how to use increasingly scarce water resources is possibly the most important factor in achieving stability," he said.

swissinfo, Jessica Dacey

Foreign policy goals

Peaceful co-existence between people

Respect for human rights and promotion of democracy

Protection of Swiss economic interests abroad

Relieving of suffering and poverty around the world

Protection of the natural basis of life

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SDC focal points

Crisis prevention and management

Good governance

Income promotion and employment

Social justice

Natural resource protection

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Water in Central Asia

In Central Asia, water related infrastructure including irrigation and hydropower are deteriorating

The institutional and financial deficiencies lead to inadequate operation of systems, leading to a growing water shortage.

Switzerland's main goals in aiding the region are to boost economic growth, reduce poverty, improve governance and promote regional cooperation and integration with the global economy.

The water sector is seen as a key challenge in the region that needs to be addressed if these bigger goals are to be met.

The first Swiss water projects in the region were started in 1996 by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) and in 1999 by the SDC. In 2000, Switzerland started several new projects.

Switzerland is active in the areas resource management, hydrometeorology, water and sanitation, flood prevention and hydropower.

Over the past five years Switzerland has invested an average of SFr68 million per year in the water sector of development.

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