Anyone who has been to Central Asia can attest to the region’s vast natural beauty, broad and diverse cultural history, and generous and hospitable people. You are met with kindness and warmth at every turn. Such was my experience last month during my first official trip to the region as World Bank vice president for Europe and Central Asia.
I wanted to hear first-hand about the development challenges countries in the region are facing, and to learn more about their goals in a post-pandemic future.
Visiting four countries – Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – I met with government leaders, private sector representatives, parliamentarians, representatives from civil society and development organizations, as well as ordinary citizens. We discussed a wide range of key issues including growth and jobs, poverty reduction, regional development, connectivity, trade, decarbonization, energy efficiency, private sector growth, disaster risk management, and climate change. Our conversations inevitably led to imagining a world after COVID-19.
The Central Asia region has been hit hard by the pandemic. In addition to the significant health and economic impacts, around 1.6 million people slipped into poverty in 2020. No country or province has been left unscathed. Households already struggling to make ends meet, and those heavily reliant on remittances from abroad, faced the greatest hardship.
As such, governments in the region are tackling significant challenges and I reiterated the World Bank’s commitment to providing them with rapid support to help protect lives and livelihoods, including through their vaccination efforts while also continuing to support their medium-term reform agendas.
In Central Asia, as around the world, we are working closely with countries to support their COVID-19 responses through a three stage approach: relief – with an initial emergency response in the health sector; restructuring – helping people, firms and institutions regain a solid footing; and resilient recovery – helping countries build a more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient future.
I was asked how Central Asian countries can ensure a resilient recovery in the face of existential threats like climate change.
Climate change has enormous significance for Central Asia, a region already highly vulnerable to natural disasters – climate-related and unrelated – such as droughts, floods, earthquakes, and mudslides. In the past three decades alone, the region has experienced 500 floods and earthquakes, impacting 25 million people, and causing $80 billion in damages. I was reminded of this vulnerability during my trip: torrential rains in May caused severe flooding and landslides in Tajikistan that led to the loss of nine lives, destruction of hundreds of homes, and disruptions to the livelihoods of more than 25,000 people.
Central Asia’s economies are also heavily reliant on carbon-based energy sources – the region is home to some of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies. Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, recently earned the inauspicious title of most polluted city in the world based on international air quality ratings for several days in December 2020.
A resilient recovery will therefore require actions and policies that benefit both people and planet, and that put green growth at the center of future development goals. It will also require substantial political and public will to make this happen within a very tight implementation timeline.
For our part, we have committed that, over the next five years, 35 percent of World Bank financing globally will deliver climate co-benefits in our projects, and at least 50 percent of our total climate finance will support investments in adaptation.
To translate this commitment to our operations in Central Asia, we are prioritizing investments that will facilitate a green, climate-smart economic transition; strengthen, preserve, and leverage agriculture and natural capital for climate resilience; accelerate sustainable, integrated spatial development aligned to a green economy; and address fragility and exclusion so that the transition works for everyone.
The region has a unique opportunity to support sustainable growth and job creation through green investments, such as cleaner energy and energy efficiency, natural capital restoration, and sustainable agriculture. I was inspired to see that a lot of this is already happening, moving economies along a path of green, resilient and inclusive development.
For example, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have identified the need to build resilience and address climate vulnerabilities in their nationally determined contributions. Kazakhstan has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and is the first country in Central Asia to establish an emissions trading scheme. Uzbekistan has also adopted several key policy reforms since 2019, including a plan to modernize and diversify agriculture, invest more in climate adaptation, and expand the use of renewable energy.
The World Bank is also partnering with countries in several ways. For example, we are helping Kazakhstan ensure the environmental sustainability of export-oriented beef production and mitigate the industry’s climate impacts. In the Kyrgyz Republic, thousands of families are improving their nutrition and seeing higher incomes from agricultural activities in a way that does not harm the environment. In Tajikistan, we are helping to rehabilitate and restore the outdated Nurek Hydropower Plant, which will lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions by 68 million tons – equivalent to powering 12 million homes with electricity for an entire year. In Uzbekistan, we helped launch the construction of the country’s first large-scale, privately developed and operated solar power plant, which will produce 270 GWh of electricity per year – enough to power more than 31,000 households and prevent the release of 156,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
The countries of Central Asia have already taken important steps toward a more resilient and inclusive growth model. By continuing to balance short- and medium-term priorities and taking advantage of new technologies, innovation, and green financing, Central Asia can both recover more quickly from the pandemic and come off the list of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies.
As we look to the future, the World Bank will continue supporting Central Asian countries in achieving a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery – one that opens up greater opportunities for prosperity, benefits all people, and leaves no one behind. Because that is truly the way forward.