Interview: Climate Change in Central Asia

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Interview: Climate Change in Central Asia

Columbia University’s Benjamin Orlove on the repercussions of climate change in Central Asia.

Interview: Climate Change in Central Asia
Credit: Syr Darya via

In Central Asia, the topic of climate change is rarely discussed in local political circles. Yet scientists have warned about the future for the Eurasian continent. The Diplomat recently sat down with Columbia University’s Benjamin Orlove to discuss the impact of climate change in Central Asia.

Little scientific work has been done on climate change and the social impact in Central Asia, despite global media coverage in the last five to ten years. What are your thoughts on climate change in this region?

Countries in the region are moving forward in the post-Soviet era to seek their own path, combined with emerging regional integration that ultimately connects Central Asia with neighboring regions. So as climate change comes into perspective, these changes come together with water issues, which continue to be a concern here.

The Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan plan to fully use their hydropower potential and these states anticipate a future of water supplies – glaciers are part of that. But another issue here is the snow melt. One of the things is that the Chuy and Naryn rivers are relatively full in July due to rainfall and snow melt. The question is [what happens] in August and September because of the variabilities regarding annual snowfalls and water runoff. The decisions on the release of these waters from hydro dams are going to … be important for the downstream countries. Obviously these challenges have been in place for decades. It’s hard to imagine that they are not going to become more intense.

There are some countries in Asia that are highly conscious of the climate change. Mongolia is one which is deeply aware of effects because it had particular bitter winters. This phenomenon is called “dzud” in Mongolia. The dzuds are very destructive winters that wipe out a large number of livestock. That in turn is tied with management of pastures and herd management. And there’s a question of a link between dzuds and climate change. It is unclear why rising temperatures with global warming would create bitter winters in Mongolia. [But] climate change can weaken the jet stream. This weakening allows Arctic weather systems to go further south and remain there for a period of time. It also means that mid-latitude air travels up north and brings mild winters that could be a problem for permafrost in Siberia, as it has been for Alaska. Greenland, too, has had periods of unusually warm weather – all part of the see-sawing of hot and cold weather that has brought disastrously cold winters to Mongolia.

The main question is why this is becoming a serious issue in Mongolia. And that to me is a question. I don’t know the answers and hope that someone studies these dzuds. It could be that there needs to be tighter links between pastoralists and the Mongolian government that would enable open communication.

Similarly, tighter links are being promoted in Bhutan due to hydropower policies. Bhutan is in dire need of economic development and hydropower is one of the strategies. There are some elements of progress with ecotourism there, but Bhutan doesn’t have a diversified economy. Hydropower planners are conscious of the glacier retreat, which is also tied to the growing problem of outburst floods. Bhutan is very sensitive to floods, because there was a major catastrophe in 1994 that impacted Bhutan’s most important historic sites. And just last month Bhutan had another smaller scale flood. So there’s a reason why Bhutan has a greater awareness of the climate change effect from the hazards perspective and resource management concern.

And this brings us to Kyrgyz Republic and whether global attention will turn to Central Asia over water issues or heatwaves. Pakistan had a devastating heatwave that killed nearly 1000 people. This in turn begs the question if there’s a history of heatwaves in Central Asia. The answer is we don’t know. But weather events in Pakistan could be a wake-up call for the rest of the region. What we do know is that in the regions where climate change is progressing rapidly, global warming is a slower force, meaning it progresses steadily. The concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing which lead to changes in average temperatures, precipitation, and the frequency of extreme weather events. And the question is what becomes a wake-up call. The wake-up call in Bhutan for instance could be the urgency of advancing hydro power projects and managing hazards. In Mongolia, the wake-up call is bitter winters. And what’s the wake-up call in Central Asia? It hasn’t been observed yet. It could well be tied to the water flows linked to the extreme occurrences. There is certainly sufficient data available for water systems in the world, linking changes in temperatures and precipitation to the water flow and that can be an indicator for identifiable variability in each given case. But I don’t know if that has been done for the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers in Central Asia. So far we do know that the climate change impact is observable in the tributaries of the Amu Darya river in the Wakhan corridor.

The IPCC has noted that the decrease in the volume of glaciers could produce regular failures in the flow of the Amu Darya and some tributaries of the Syr Darya in the next 20 years. What are your thoughts on this projection?

Scientists gather lots of data. And what scientists are saying is that we know where the water is coming from – it comes from rainfall, glacier melt and natural springs and groundwater. By that, scientists are saying that we know what that is and we [projected] this data into the future. But they do that on the basis of the historic data where it is available. Here in Central Asia, there’s relatively good data on rainfall which was collected during the Soviet [era]. The Soviets were very organized with collecting this information for decades. Some scientists used the satellite data. What you do is, you take all this data together and look at it from historic perspective and project that to the future. They are able to say what was happening with Syr Darya tributaries such as the Naryn river in the last decades because of the increase or decrease of the water flows which normally may take decades. One thing for sure is that someone should be looking at the data.

Is more data needed to have a better understanding of the effects of climate change in Central Asia?

Data could be a part of the issue. In my opinion, there have been fair efforts in the downstream and upstream states to measure the flow of the rivers. But, I think, there should be more concern in the region. And also, the question could be attributed to the specifics of the research, as to who is conducting these measures or probes and would that information be used internally within the state itself or would it be shared between the upstream and downstream countries. There’s hope for better coordination between the Central Asian states. I know that a “triple link” – which is climate, glaciers and rivers – is advancing between India and Pakistan. To my knowledge, this is a very difficult process because India and Pakistan are not dear friends; in fact their armies are facing each other on the Siachen glacier. Nonetheless, India and Pakistan are aware of the climate change dilemma. They know what’s at stake. So climate change is at least on the agenda.

Do you think that Central Asian states will ultimately come together and start coordinating their actions on climate change? We know that the plight of the Aral Sea is a global showcase. The Central Asian republics don’t seem to realize how serious climate change is. Regional rivalry and hostilities between the upstream and downstream republics haven’t gone away, after all.

What I see is that it has in some part to do with mismanagement of the water resources in the downstream states. A lot of water is wasted and so much land is destroyed through poor irrigation practices which led to salinization, worsened by a commitment to cotton production in Uzbekistan. That’s the legacy of the Soviet days and my impression is that’s how they know about growing cotton. And this practice continues to be in place. But it doesn’t mean that the general concept of the market economy leads to good water governance. For example, in the state of California, there are places where poor water management has led to salinization. Certainly, cotton is a difficult crop to farm in many parts of the world.

In a way, there’s acceptance that the Aral Sea is gone and that doesn’t promote awareness or change. There are many parts of the world where there’s cooperation over river basins. I would even say that it is present in the most difficult part of the world, the Middle East. [For instance], the Jordan river basin where Jordan, Israel and Palestine are at least speaking to each other on water issues and [although] it’s not necessarily as equitable or sustainable as they could wish they are linking to the issue with desalinization. In my own research, I have had an experience of working with organizations in West Africa that have worked on the Niger river and Volta river. These waters link countries with enormous differences in political systems and economic development: Nigeria, Mali and Niger. These countries at least have conversations about water management, and I’m encouraged that better news is coming out of there on management of the river basin than in any other regions of the world.

It is important to see the variety of arrangements on water management between the states. In the Nile basin, the most powerful country Egypt is in the bottom. In Southeast Asia, in the Mekong and Red rivers, China is the upstream state. In Central Asia, we have powerful states downstream and there’s also a history of rivalry and competition between the states. In many configurations, partner states can be rivals and be unequal as well. Yet, there are cases of cooperation in the river basins and one can hope that there’s a basis for cooperation in Central Asia, also. Climate change may promote cooperation in Central Asia because it will pressure countries to find solutions. I would also add that Central Asian republics differ from each other not only in adaptation techniques but also in mitigation issues. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are producers of natural gas, which is an energy source with significant greenhouse gas emissions – not as serious as the ones associated with oil, but serious nonetheless. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan produce hydropower, a renewable source of energy. And solar power – also a renewable – has tremendous potential in the region.

What about the social impact on the densely populated Ferghana Valley? Presumably, this area is the most vulnerable territory to the effects of global warming. How do you think climate change will manifest itself in the valley?

The first parallel comes to mind is Syria. I would recommend a recent paper “Climate Change Drought Linked to Syrian Civil War,” which appeared in the journal Nature. [There are] two things to distinguish here – internal and international conflicts. Countries typically don’t go to war over water. There are certainly resource-based wars and a lack of water can certainly cause internal instability. In my opinion, tensions over water may well be further downstream in Uzbekistan. If you think of the Syr Darya as a big faucet entering Uzbekistan, how do you think the Uzbek government will distribute that water between the Ferghana base, which is the upstream part, and down river, which is also growing cotton. I just don’t know how Uzbekistan will manage these issues. This is when regional links come into perspective.

In Central Asia, one of the safety valves has been tied to migration. In Syria, farming communities have been hammered by the water issues and record drought prior to the civil war, agriculture has become less and less viable, which in turn forced many of these farmers to move into the cities. These are people from different regions with different ethnic backgrounds. Extreme droughts have become much more likely in the 21 century than say they would have been in the 18th or 19th centuries. Weather anomalies can certainly contribute to instability. It’s not to say for instance that Iraqis and Syrians were delighted when Turks built water dams in the upstream of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Nonetheless, it’s not what they are fighting for because they are not disagreeing about water on an interstate level.

And in my opinion, regional conflicts over water in Central Asia are unlikely to take place but it could be more [a matter] of instability within the states. Where I would start to look is, there’s a water distribution system in Uzbekistan. That water distribution system allocates water between the Fergana Valley and the cotton regions further west. It’s inefficient and changing it is difficult.

Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer-analyst with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. He can be contacted at rsatke at