Climate Change and Water Resources in Central Asia: Growing Uncertainty

Via the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR), a look at the impact of climate change on water resources in Central Asia:

“Unpredictable water availability with more frequent and severe natural floods and droughts, a growing population and increasing water withdrawals outside the region mean that today’s actions are critical for a sustainable future,” notes Timur Idrisov, an environmental activist (Tajikistan), in an article for CABAR .asia.

The countries of Central Asia are already facing significant challenges in dealing with the adverse effects of climate change. The region, which is characterized by aridity, severe weather fluctuations, low rainfall, and uneven distribution of resources, is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The vulnerability of countries is due not only to geographical location or climatic conditions. Existing economic problems, population growth, socio-political instability, limited institutional and scientific capacity, outdated infrastructure, high levels of degradation of agricultural land and natural ecosystems are just some of the factors that undermine the ability and willingness of the countries of Central Asia to cope with the consequences of climate change.

It is quite clear that water resources in the Central Asian region determine various aspects of national and regional security.

Any changes affecting water resources have a high multiplicative effect on the development of the countries of the region and each country individually.

 For example, irrigated agriculture, which makes a significant contribution to countries’ GDP, as well as hydroelectric power generation, depends on the availability of water. Climate change adds great uncertainty to the future of water resources in Central Asia.Water scarcity, coupled with governance challenges, means the region is vulnerable to shocks and increasingly exposed to climate change. Unpredictable water availability with more frequent and severe natural floods and droughts, a growing population and increasing water withdrawals outside the region mean that action today is critical for a sustainable future.

Melting glaciers and precipitation variability

One of the most significant consequences of global warming in Central Asia is the melting of glaciers and the reduction of snow cover in the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai. Rising temperatures and variability in precipitation are already leading to a reduction in the area and volume of glaciers. The current rate of mass loss from glaciers, according to scientists, is 0.2-1% per year. Many small glaciers have already disappeared.

Precipitation will become more variable, as will the formation of snow cover. Experts believe that there will be deviations in the intensity and geographical distribution of precipitation – the southwest of Central Asia will become drier, and the northeast will be more humid. Long dry periods may be replaced by days with heavy rainfall. Along with rising temperatures and melting glaciers, precipitation variability will affect the flow regime of rivers, including transboundary ones – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

Access to water resources

According to the FAO, the per capita water resources in the countries of Central Asia are sufficient (about 2.3 thousand m3), and the problem with water resources in the region is not a shortage, but their extremely irrational use. However, water resources are unevenly distributed – in downstream countries, the availability of domestic renewable water resources is low. It is not only climate change that is making the situation worse – growth in production, agriculture and population will increase the demand for water.

An increase in the scarcity of existing water resources and the deterioration of their quality will affect the population’s access to water, including drinking water. In Tajikistan, more than 2/3 of the population lives in rural areas, where access to water is still a major problem. According to the World Bank, in a number of rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, residents have access to water only from irrigation systems. And in Uzbekistan, more than half of the total population is not connected to the central water supply networks. 

Threat to agriculture

Agriculture is one of the main sectors of the economy of the Central Asian countries. The share of agriculture in the GDP of the countries of the region ranges from 10 to 45%. At the same time, it employs from 20 to 50% of the working population. According to FAO, the region experiences regular droughts in more than half of its rainfed arable land, and high or very high levels of water stress in almost all irrigated areas. A shift in the timing of peak river flows may pose a threat to irrigated agriculture, in particular cotton and rice growing. Heatwaves and variability in precipitation can reduce yields for wheat and other crops and promote the spread of pests and diseases.

Climate change, together with such negative impacts as unregulated livestock grazing, deforestation, and inefficient farming, can significantly increase the processes of soil erosion and degradation. Hotter weather and an increase in the number of hot days will lead to increased desertification, reduced pasture productivity and a reduced forage base. All these processes can affect food security. In the medium to long term, the negative impacts of climate change will far outweigh the positive ones that may be experienced in some areas.

Natural disasters

The impact of climate change on water-related disasters, including outburst of glacial lakes, has been identified as one of the key threats in the region. Most of the observed emergencies, such as hail, mudflows, drought, extreme high or low temperatures, are caused by extreme weather events. Millions of people in the region have been affected by them over the past 30 years, and the economic damage is in the billions of US dollars. Meteorologists confirm the fact that over the past decades, the frequency and intensity of natural hydrometeorological phenomena in the countries of the region has increased.

Natural disasters destroy transport, energy and other infrastructure and damage agriculture. In 2021, a drought led to the death of several thousand animals in numerous regions of Kazakhstan, and a lack of water for irrigation sparked protests from farmers in the Chui region of Kyrgyzstan. In the spring of 2022, heavy rains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan caused mudflows that caused significant damage in some parts of the countries. Scientists warn that a combination of several extreme weather events could turn into larger disasters.

Problems for the energy sector

Hydropower has a special place in the economy of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where most of the electricity is produced due to hydroelectric power plants. Hydropower is directly dependent on the hydrological cycle of rivers, which climate models show will change over the long term. This will reduce the reliability and capacity of hydropower facilities. The expected seasonal drop in water level or even the drying up of some small rivers may stop the operation of a number of small hydropower plants.

Mudflows and sedimentary rocks pose a particular risk to HPPs. The silting up of reservoirs can reduce power generation and create additional difficulties for the management of hydropower plants. In general, according to the World Bank, negative climate impacts can lead to a decrease in hydroelectric power generation by 20% in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Rising or insufficient water temperatures could negatively impact thermal power generation in the rest of the region.

Migration and settlers

Given the large proportion of low-income rural populations in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, extreme and adverse weather and climate events could increase poverty or further reduce the income of many families and reduce their food and economic security.

Natural disasters in the region result in short-term and permanent displacement. The increase in the number and intensity of such disasters means that more people will be at risk. The degradation of ecosystems and the deterioration of living conditions, including due to climate change, will affect the increase in seasonal or long-term migration. In countries where the proportion of the rural population is high, migration from villages to cities will increase. 

According to the World Bank, up to 2.4 million internal climate migrants may appear in Central Asia by 2050. Hotspots of climate change are expected to emerge along the southern border of Kazakhstan, in areas around the Fergana Valley and Bishkek. Some areas of eastern Turkmenistan and southern Uzbekistan along the Amu Darya, where water availability and crops are predicted to decline, will also be on the list.

Social tensions and conflicts

Limited access and inefficient water use can be a source of potential conflict in Central Asia. The regulation of the irrigation and energy regime of water resources has already led to political disagreements and tensions between countries. For example, the decision to build hydropower plants in mountainous countries met with disagreement in the countries downstream of transboundary rivers and became an occasion for diplomatic polemics and wrangle. The local water dispute, along with other factors, led last year to conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Water problems, which are especially exacerbated during droughts, caused protests by farmers and residents of some villages in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in the summer of 2021. It is predicted that further irrational use of water, together with the negative impacts of climate change, may pose a threat to the energy and food security of countries, spur an increase in electricity and food prices. And this, in turn, can exacerbate social tension and lead to destabilization in the region.

Impact on ecosystems

Changes in the availability of water resources and rising temperatures are expected to change the species composition of flora and fauna and affect natural ecosystems. In mountain ecosystems, a shift in the vertical belts of plant communities is already observed. Some species of flora and fauna may be endangered or completely disappear, while others may undergo significant changes in their habitats. Climate change may trigger new outbreaks of pests or an increase in the number of invasive species. Dryer weather and longer heat waves increase the risk of wildfires. 

Further anthropogenic pressure and climate change could undermine the resilience of existing ecosystems, lead to a decline in species biodiversity, and adversely affect the ecosystem services on which our livelihoods and development depend. Therefore, the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems should be given priority. 

Regional cooperation

There is a shared commitment to cooperation in Central Asia. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission (ICWC), the Interstate Commission for Sustainable Development, and a number of regional centers operate in the region. There are a number of agreements related to water management. However, the question of how effectively they are implemented and implemented remains the subject of periodic disputes. Water management in Central Asia is difficult and complex, and many of the problems that existed 20 years ago still persist today.

In 2017, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation prepared a report on water cooperation in Central Asia, which noted: “Water policy in the region is mainly determined by uncoordinated national strategies. The combination of low water use efficiency, negative externalities caused by unilateral actions, and competing national priorities has created controversy and fueled political and diplomatic disputes between countries.”

The same report stated that only rough estimates put the cost of inaction on improving water management in Central Asia at 4.5 billion USD annually.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 12th, 2023 at 4:24 pm and is filed under Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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