It is not only all over Central Asia that one can hear people exclaiming ‘Water is the Source of Life’. Along the Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan, one can often see such slogans decorating the protective walls around drinking-water infrastructure or irrigation – as here. You can find some people being very careful not to spit or spill soap into water-courses, while other people find the embankment of the local canal a really good place to wash their car or spring-clean their carpets. With more cars and carpets washed by the river, will Naryn be richer or poorer?
11% of the Naryn’s water comes from glacier run-off and up to 35% from melting snow. Glacier surveys for the Naryn river basin count 507 glaciers, which have already lost around 20% of their mass over the last fifty years. Many people are concerned about the Kumtor gold mine, operating on the glaciated headwaters of the Naryn. Many have seen pictures of the dark waste rock and sodium cyanide tailing pond on the Davidov glacier. There is concern about the water quality that the mine releases, and about what would happen if an earthquake triggered a big spill from the cyanide tailings. For some people, this means there shouldn’t be any gold-mining on the mountains ‘kalpak’, as they call it. Others would prefer more money from this mining venture to reach them.
Fetching water from such pumps is a familiar chore in rural Central Asia, for the young members of the household or those with the lowest status, for example the daughter-in-law. Such pump networks (usually simply called ‘taza suu’, i.e. ‘clean water’) were installed in the late Soviet period or later with the help of development money. Their maintenance is the responsibility of the commune, which often either struggles to find the necessary funds, or the funds may trickle away elsewhere.
As with the larger regional scale view of the Naryn and Syr Darya as somehow inadequate water sources, at the village level it is not really the arid climate that make water hard to get, but rather the actual distribution of water in conjunction with missing or broken infrastructure. Local pumps are also a meeting place for swapping news. Now some neighbourhoods are installing piped water to each household. How will this change the way people meet each other and talk in the streets? Will young people and kelins lose something in losing the sociable trip to the pump?
Although fish are plentiful, they are not important staples in local Naryn diets, as they are in the Syr Darya delta. Naryn citizens recall that fish were once known as ‘water worms’ (suu kurttar) and were considered famine food. Fishing is only pursued as a hobby by individual boys and men, who enjoy exciting rumours about monstrous fish lurking under bridges.
In Naryn town, the powerful torrent squeezes itself between two-metre high outcrops. and there are few places to dabble your feet in the river. The fast moving water often costs lives: the Naryn is often called kanduu suu (bloody water). So the town mainly turns its back on the river: there is no cool river promenade, as in other Central Asian river cities like Khojand (link). The closest houses in Naryn town face away, towards streets set at a distance from the roaring water. Villages in the valley are equally set on escarpments: in view of the river, but not right next to it. This usually keeps the town and other settlements safe from the river. However, 2016 brought one of the wettest early summers on record, closely following a severe drought. The huge volume of rain, combined with the usual snow-melt overwhelmed roads and bridges. As people say locally ‘the river ate them’. Is the river too ‘rich’ in water, does its strength make people poor?