Central Asian countries have a long list of potential security challenges: economic recession, the return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, ethnic and political violence, and the spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan. This list is not exhaustive, and over the years it has only increased in length. Most recently, scholars and policymakers have also emphasized the increased Chinese presence in the region, the crisis in Xinjiang, and imminent transitions of power in countries of the region as potential causes of instability. Frustratingly, discussions on Eurasian security often omit another growing threat: climate change.
For the third year in a row, Central Asia has been hit by an anomalously hot summer. This June, Turkmenistan reached temperatures of 44 C (111 F). The temperature in Tashkent has steadily hovered around 42 C, whereas residents of the southern parts of Uzbekistan have suffered under 44 C heat. Tajikistan does not lag behind, with the temperatures rising to 43 C in July. Similarly, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the temperature is expected to rise to 45 C in some regions this month.
The states of Central Asia are among the countries contributing the least to global climate change. The combined percentage of Tajikistan’s, Uzbekistan’s, and Kyrgyzstan’s emissions accounts for only 0.55 percent of the total global level. In comparison, the United States’ and China’s emissions together account for around 40 percent of the global total. Yet, the people of Central Asia are among those suffering directly from the effects of climate change.
During the last few decades, on average, the temperature in Central Asia has risen by 5 degrees Celsius, and in low altitudes, even more. One of the consequences of this rise in average temperature has been an increase in both the frequency and length of droughts. Oftentimes, droughts can destroy significant portions of the affected region’s crops. The destruction of harvests results in a dramatic collapse in household income, which affects farmers’ ability to purchase seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs for the next year. According to a World Bank forecast, total crop yields in Central Asia are expected to decrease by 30 percent by 2050 due to changing climate patterns. This will only exacerbate issues of hunger in the region. The number of people who suffer from food insecurity has continuously risen over the last few years, from around 4 million in 2015 to 4.3 million in 2017. With 9 percent and 7.4 percent respectively, Tajikistan’s and Uzbekistan’s populations are the most vulnerable to malnourishment in the region.
Besides aggravating the acute issue of droughts in Central Asia, the increase in temperature has had two other major effects. First, less and less water becomes available every year due to the increase in the rate of water evaporation. As water used for irrigation evaporates, it leaves behind saline soil, which is ill-suited for agricultural production. In Uzbekistan, more than half of irrigated land has become saline. Equally damaging, increasing salt concentration has resulted in the extinction of most of the available fish in the remaining parts of the Aral Sea. A similar pattern is already evident in some other water basins in Central Asia. This problem puts a lot of pressure on fishermen in the region, leaving them without their livelihood and local populations without the previously stable supply of fish.
Second, the increase in temperature is causing the faster melting of Central Asian glaciers. For example, Tajikistan has 8,492 glaciers, around 20 percent of which have already retreated, with up to 30 percent at risk of disappearing by 2050. Disappearing glaciers will ultimately significantly decrease the water supply in the region. As such, the availability of water in the Amu Darya, one of the two main rivers in the region, is expected to decrease by 40 percent. In the meantime, melting glaciers cause floating ice masses to block water flows. In other instances, a short-term increase in water supply due to melting results in rivers overflowing their banks. In 2015, floods took place all over Tajikistan, not only damaging crops but also destroying houses. Eighty percent of the Pamir population was left without electricity and food due to floods. Similarly, mudslides damaged more than 1,500 houses in the south of Tajikistan that year. People were left at the mercy of Moscow: the Russian Air Force delivered more than 4 tons of humanitarian aid in response to the floods.
What are the Implications for Regional Security?
Central Asia’s total population is about 72 million, the majority of which lives in rural areas. Agriculture is one of the most important components of the Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek economies. It accounts for more than 25 percent of their economies, and an even higher share of employment (60 percent in the case of Tajikistan). Regional climate change, which has resulted in droughts and floods, have already brought about the collapse of many families’ incomes and assets. In the meantime, the failure of national governments to compensate people for their losses and to develop effective responses to natural disasters has resulted in increased labor migration. Should nothing change, this trend is only likely to accelerate. We know that poverty per se is not the main reason behind Central Asians’ turn to radical groups such as the Islamic State, but what we also do know is that a lot of recruiting of Central Asian fighters happened in Russia. Being far away from their communities and families, labor migrants from Central Asia become an easy target for recruitment.
Second, water has always been a contentious issue in Central Asia, particularly between Dushanbe and Tashkent. Then-President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov was very vocal against the construction of the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev improved bilateral relations with Tajikistan early in his tenure, making a historic visit to Dushanbe in March 2018. He claimed that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had no unresolved issues anymore. Despite Mirziyoyev’s assurances, one key thing to remember is that Uzbekistan’s economy relies heavily on water that flows out of Tajikistan. Cotton is a very water-intensive crop. Therefore, a decrease in water availability will hit Uzbekistan hard. Water disputes also exist between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. With a rapidly growing population and no effective dispute-settlement mechanisms, Central Asia has a risk of seeing the re-emergence of conflicts between upstream countries (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and their much stronger downstream neighbors (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). Given that water will become a scarce resource, these conflicts may be much sharper and more bitter than in the past.
For all major external stakeholders – Russia, China, and the United States – security has always been on the top of their list of priorities in the region. They have invested millions of dollars to enhance the capacity of national governments to counter terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and smuggling. All had one major goal: increasing the resilience of Central Asian states to external and internal shocks and preventing state failure. While Central Asian governments have arguably increased their resilience to traditional threats, they remain vulnerable to the effects of climate change. During the Soviet period, the highly institutionalized and autocratic state could partially cope with the consequences of natural disasters and mitigate their effects, although the recent HBO Chernobyl series serves as a reminder that that past may not be so clean and simple. In contrast, post-Soviet Central Asian governments have largely failed to build effective institutional and technical capacities to adapt to climate change. These countries lack independent institutional entities to address climate change and even struggle to develop strategies for disaster risk reduction. In this regard, climate change in Central Asia is both a challenge and an opportunity for Russia, China, and the United States. Domestic instability, violence, and conflicts can damage the interests of the great powers in the region. At the same time, given the current tensions between the great powers, climate change in Central Asia represents a promising avenue for cooperation between Russia, China, and the United States.
Khamza Sharifzoda is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He specializes in the politics and governance of Russia, Turkey and Eurasia.