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Iran has strongly protested about an agreement between the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan to divide up the northern section of the energy-rich Caspian sea.

"The bilateral accord cannot be considered a legal regime for the sea," foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, was quoted by the official Iranian news agency IRNA as saying on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev signed an accord on Monday in Moscow dividing the northern quarter of the Caspian sea between their countries. The agreement followed an unsuccessful summit last month of the five nations - Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan - bordering the sea.

According to a report by the Times of Central Asia, the bilateral accord shows that the summit's failure was not necessarily the end of the negotiation process.

However, Iran's reaction was quick and strong. Its Navy vowed to defend national interests in the Caspian sea following the announcement of the agreement. Iran's Navy Commander Rear-admiral Abbas Mohtaj was quoted by IRNA as saying that his forces were quite vigilant and would employ everything at their disposal to defend the nation and its interests in Iranian waters.

Iran, backed by Turkmenistan, insists the five countries should each claim an equal 20 percent portion of the oil- and gas-rich sea. But Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, whose Caspian coastlines are longer, want a division based on the length of each country's shoreline. This would give Iran only a 13 percent share of the sea.

While the Central Asian countries have many disputes that cloud relations and need to be resolved, there is also a great potential for regional cooperation that could lead to faster economic growth, development and improvement in people's lives. One such venture is the 1300 km natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. The World Bank this week expressed support for the proposed multi-billion dollar project.

"We have expressed interest in that [pipeline project]. But I think the principals need to discuss it," World Bank President James Wolfensohn told reporters in Kabul. "We are not taking the entrepreneurial role, but were it to come up, we would certainly take a look at it," he promised.

Turkmenistan is reportedly estimated to have 159 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, the 11th largest in the world and is also an exporter of electricity to neighbouring Tajikistan. With a huge potential to export power - generated through gas power plants - Turkmenistan is pushing for a single power grid for the member nations of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO).

The ECO comprises Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan says that the unification of the power systems of the various countries would have a number of technical and economic advantages, including increasing the reliability and quality of power supplies.

On a similar note of mutual cooperation, neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan set up an inter-parliamentary committee this week to improve customs and trade procedures. Kyrgyzstan is strongly pushing for a common market in Central Asia, which it says will have benefits for the entire region.

Kyrgyzstan's proximity to China places it in a unique position to become the gateway for Chinese products and that is why its government is pressing other neighbours to bring down tariff barriers on trade and commerce. Its officials say it needs investment to spur economic growth.

Kyrgyz authorities were also on alert this week because of landslides caused by recent rains becoming a threat to radioactive waste sites in the southern part of the country. Authorities sought international help to contain the problem in Mayluu-Suu city in Jalal-Abad oblast.

Kyrgyzstan inherited some 50 radioactive waste sites after it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, including 23 sites near Mayluu-Suu, which are around 50 years old.

Meanwhile, political troubles continued in the country. This week alone protestors blocked the main highway between the southern city of Osh and the capital, Bishkek, in two separate demonstrations. The protestors were demanding that charges against the opposition parliamentary deputy, Azimbek Beknazarov, to be dropped. Beknazarov is charged with abuse of power.

Protests have not stopped in Kyrgyzstan since 18 March when five Beknazarov supporters were killed by police. The authorities are accused of suppression of its opposition and violation of human rights - a charge levelled against several Central Asian countries.

However, in a more positive development, neighbouring Uzbekistan, abolished its policy of state censorship of the country's newspapers. However, the landmark move was followed by a clear warning to the editors that they would be held responsible for all the contents published in their newspapers. For the first time, the country's newspapers did not have to pass through the hands of censors on Monday.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is also working on projects to improve the water supply and distribution system in parts of the country. This week it launched a pilot project for the environmental and economic restructuring of water and land management in western Khorzem region. The estimated US $1.9 million project will be carried out over 10 years.

The decaying water system of Uzbekistan is blamed for an outbreak of typhoid fever in Dzhizak province. About 40 villagers in the province had to be hospitalised after being diagnosed with typhoid fever. According to newspaper reports this was the third time that this illness had broken out in the region in five years.

Uzbek authorities have earmarked US $12 million, provided by the Asian Development Bank, to improve the water system in the province. The money will be spent on 12 new purification systems, six new pumping stations, new water piping and repairs. In a separate move, Tashkent has also applied to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for a loan to modernise the heating system of the Uzbek capital.

Many Central Asian countries are predicted to have better crop prospects due to improving weather conditions, according to the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA). Its latest report released this week pointed out that beneficial rainfall throughout the winter and spring has boosted wheat production prospects in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

However, Tajikistan's wheat production is threatened by a locust invasion. Authorities say 5,000 hectares of crops have already been destroyed in southern and northern regions. They have also appealed for urgent help from donors in the form of pesticides and chemicals to stop the menace.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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