Crossroads Asia

Is Kyrgyzstan Ready for the Next Natural Disaster?

After a deadly spring, can Kyrgyzstan move to control the risk posed by future landslides?

By Ryskeldi Satke for
Is Kyrgyzstan Ready for the Next Natural Disaster?

Tian Shan mountain region as viewed by satellite

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ European Space Agency
The increasing dangers of natural disasters in the Tian Shan region raise questions regarding the Kyrgyz government’s ability to manage these hazardous events. The latest deadly landslides in Osh and Jalalabad provinces claimed 26 lives this spring alone. The Kyrgyz authorities blamed heavy rainfall in the immediate aftermath of a massive landslide in Uzgen district of Osh province. The Ministry of Emergency stated victims in Uzgen district were advised to move out of the area weeks prior to the tragic disaster that killed 24 villagers.
The Ministry of Emergency of the Kyrgyz Republic said that a “main reason for this activation [of landslides] is a large amount of precipitation between October 2016 and March 2017 exceeding the average annual number by 290 percent of the monthly norm. Excessive snow melt caused intensive soaking of landslide slopes, also.” The Kyrgyz authorities urged population in the landslide prone areas to follow instructions from the government and to relocate upon warning from the Ministry of Emergency. As a recommendation to local residents, the government strongly encouraged villagers to “constantly monitor the landscape around” their homes.
Scientists believe the materials that make up parts of southern Kyrgyzstan make it susceptible to these exceptionally large and mobile landslides. Professor Dave Petley at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, in a comment for this article, said “it should be possible to identify susceptible areas for landslides, because in many cases the ground does seem to show the development of cracks before failure (that has certainly been the case in at least some of the recent landslides [in Kyrgyzstan]). Thus, a large-scale mapping program would be the obvious first step, if this has not been done already.” Petley suggested new low-cost warning systems in the event of a possible landslide can be used to save lives.
Indeed, Kyrgyz researchers have previously worked on the mapping program to identify and to designate landslide prone areas in the country. Bolot Moldobekov, director of the Central Asia Institute in Bishkek, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz language service that such a map was made by the institute and it was provided for use to the country’s Ministry of Emergency. However, many experts, including the Kyrgyz authorities, insist deadly disasters are being caused by the changing climate and seismic activity in the Fergana Valley.
William Colgan, adjunct assistant professor at Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, said via email that “climate change in Tian Shan is contributing to a pronounced decrease in the amount of precipitation that falls as snow, and an increase in the amount of rain. Rain is a tremendous source of energy to melt glaciers”
“By virtue of being liquid, rain contains substantial latent energy that it transfer to glacier ice, causing the rain to cool and freeze and the ice to warm and melt. One kilogram of refreezing rain releases sufficient energy to warm 100 kg of ice by almost 2 degrees Celsius,” he explained. “In a continental climate like the Tian Shan, relatively small increases in rainfall rates can accelerate glacier melt far more than relatively large increases in air temperatures. In this context, extreme 2017 snowfall is part of climate variability, rather than a climate trend.” Scientists agree more research would be required to pin down the specific causes of the abnormal rainfall in Tian Shan and to establish a history of such rains in the greater region of Central Asia.
Professor Benjamin Orlove, senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, believes mountainous countries, where landslide hazards persist, can learn from other states that have experienced similar naturally occurring disasters. For instance, “Switzerland has developed effective procedures to reduce the frequency of landslides and to reduce the damage from the ones that occur,” Orlove said. “And in the United States, landslide prone areas such as southern California have also taken steps that can serve as lessons.”
There are a number of steps countries can take to reduce risks, according to Orlove:
Geological surveys can determine the regions of highest risk. Retention walls and other infrastructure can be installed to prevent small landslides from turning into large ones. Zoning regulations can assure that houses, hospitals, schools, and other facilities are not located in the areas of greatest risk. Populations can receive training to prepare to take shelter or evacuate if there are acute landslide risks. These steps are more effective if there are trained professionals and strong programs that link governments, civil society organizations, and local communities.
Unfortunately, the Kyrgyz government doesn’t seem to have a structured policy and long-term strategy concerning disaster risk reduction in the country. Recently, Kyrgyz MPs criticized the Ministry of Emergency for lack of efforts “in the field of prevention of emergency situations.” In a session of the Kyrgyz Parliament, it was revealed that the Ministry of Emergency is understaffed and in need of special rescue equipment, according to Deputy Minister Kalys Ahmatov. In the aftermath of deadly landslides in southern provinces, it has also become clear that the local administrations do not possess required resources and capabilities to manage prevention and emergency efforts on the ground.
According to decree 289 of the government of Kyrgyz Republic issued on April 23, 2004 and currently posted on the Ministry of Emergency website, the heads of the local state administration, as well as heads of local self-government bodies, are assigned to resettle families away from potentially hazardous areas. It remains to be seen whether this decree is working or not but it is essential for the Kyrgyz authorities to actively involve civil society and environmental groups in preventative measures. Alternatively, one of the ways to improve the situation is effective cooperation with international organizations such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which is already working on the disaster risk management program in Kyrgyzstan.
Consequently, it is in the interests of the Kyrgyz Republic to be part of the Paris Agreement, a global framework on reduction of greenhouse gases and climate change. Kyrgyzstan has signed the accord but the Central Asian country has yet to ratify the agreement (unlike Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which have all ratified it). Most importantly, the Paris Agreement can be helpful for Kyrgyz governments and scientists to research and assess the impact of climate change in Tian Shan and to exchange scientific data on weather anomalies in the region.
This piece was originally published in Russian by the Central Asian Analytical Network. 
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer for research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey, and the U.S.