Interview: Central Asia Copes With Climate Change

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Interview: Central Asia Copes With Climate Change

Stefanos Xenarios outlines how Central Asian countries are attempting to adapt to climate change.

Interview: Central Asia Copes With Climate Change

The Aral Sea in 1989 (L) and 2008 (R).

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Zafiroblue05 and NASA

From natural disasters to the future of non-renewable energy, environmental considerations will have an outsized impact in Central Asia. In this interview, Stefanos Xenarios, ‎Senior Researcher at the Mountainous Societies Research Institute (MSRI), University of Central Asia, speaks to The Diplomat’s Ryskeldi Satke about the impact of the Paris Agreement – and the U.S. withdrawal from the same – on Central Asia, and how the region’s states are attempting to mitigate the impact of climate change.

How will the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement have an impact on Central Asia?

The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris agreement was a disappointment for most of the countries combating climate change and supporting lower dependence on hydrocarbon-based energy. Technically speaking, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement is a quite lengthy process, which the current U.S. government may not manage to accomplish while in office.

However, the withdrawal may convey a discouraging message for countries that have not yet ratified the legal documents, including Central Asian countries. On the other hand, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris agreement may provide opportunities to Central Asian countries to seek closer ties with the European Union, Japan, and nowadays China, who have become the strong defendants of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCC]. Common climate changes initiatives are already underway in the Central Asian region, with strong investments in infrastructural and institutional interventions for improving the performance of Central Asian countries on climate change actions.

Two states out of five in Central Asia haven’t ratified the Paris accord yet. How does that translate to cooperation on environmental issues in the region? Is there any  cooperation on climate change between the Central Asian states to begin with?

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s non-ratification of the Paris agreement could possibly derive from technical hurdles on conforming to the relevant regulatory framework and not from deliberate refusal to consent to the agreement. The cooperation of Central Asian countries on common initiatives for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies is slowly progressing with many examples all over the region. The coupling of climate change initiatives with funding opportunities offered from institutional agencies and private donors constitute a motivation for all Central Asian countries to come in closer cooperation and fulfill common goals.

It seems Central Asia is experiencing a wave of natural disasters in recent years, such as flooding, landslides, and glacial lake outbursts, along with unusual weather patterns (heavy rains, snow melts, etc.). What’s the explanation for this?

Central Asia, mainly the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), has been prone to natural disasters since historical records began in the region. The location of some of the world’s highest mountainous ranges (the Pamirs and Tien Shan Mountains) in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, along with the regions’ continental climate and other geophysical conditions, were the major forces encouraging natural hazards.

Throughout the Soviet period, there were facilities and infrastructure in place to partially cope with the disasters’ aftermath and mitigate the impacts. In the post-Soviet era, the situation has become aggravated due to the limited capacity of the countries to confront major hazards.

Climate change is about to potentially aggravate the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards in mountainous terrains as well in lowland areas. However, more research should be conducted in this regard to monitor the microclimate conditions in the highlands, understand linkages between climatic and hydrological interactions, and analyze the contribution of existent deprivations in local communities to climate change impacts.

It looks like Central Asian states aren’t prepared to deal with the impact of climate change, although Kyrgyzstan is a bright example. What would be the best practices for the region to mitigate adaptive capacity across Central Asia?

The Kyrgyz Republic, although it may not be fully prepared to deal with climate change’s impact, is very willing to cooperate and endorse new initiatives mainly focusing on climate change mitigation measures. Kyrgyzstan also seems to be one of the most cooperative countries in the region when it comes to adopting technologies and policies from the European Union, Japan, and other progressive entities for the alleviation of climate change. Kyrgyzstan also supports research on climate change mitigation and mostly adaptation initiatives in disadvantaged areas of the country and remote mountainous communities.

Do you believe that the Aral Sea can be saved?

The environmental degradation of the Aral Sea is a result of a chronic and intensive pressure on major river basins, which provide freshwater to the Aral Sea, by provoking irreversible damage to the basin. There are many national, regional, and international agencies established for the restoration of the basin, which have triggered public opinion and eventually helped in reviving a smaller version of the Aral Sea.

However, there are currently increasing pressures all over the region for more water for agriculture, energy, drinking, and industrial use. Water extraction is derived to a large extent from the two major rivers (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) replenishing the Aral Sea. It is unlikely that the Aral Sea will keep its original shape unless the demand could be somehow curbed through the introduction of technical and institutional measures.

How will climate change impact the oil and gas industries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan?

The three countries Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan naturally desire to gain economic growth and improved welfare through the exploitation of natural resources and exporting of hydrocarbon fuels. It is up to the discretion of each country to select the means of production for its economic growth up to the extent that this is not disturbing neighboring countries and the global environment.

There are currently technologies to partly mitigate the pollution stemming from hydrocarbons by also trapping the main determinants of climate change, in case Central Asian countries persist in basing their economic growth on the exporting of hydrocarbons.

However, as long as the new generation of renewable systems becomes economically appealing versus the non-renewables, it will be a great challenge for Central Asian countries to export non-renewable energy in a competitive environment. The current low pricing of oil has already provoked a major impact to purely hydrocarbon exporting economies like Kazakhstan, which are already in the process of diversifying the economic base of the country.

This interview was also published in Russian by the Central Asian Analytical Network (CANN).

Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the United States.