The five countries of Central Asia comprise one of the world’s most vulnerable and rapidly degrading areas. Across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, lands once wealthy on the route of the Silk Road are now prone to desertification, soil erosion, salinization and forest loss, incurring huge costs financially and on the livelihoods of the region’s rural poor.
International cooperation to improve the region’s adaptability to climate change has historically been sparse at best, but nations both within and beyond Central Asia are now beginning to band together to address environmental and related socioeconomic issues.
Accelerating joint efforts against climate change is the basis for the annual Central Asia Climate Change Conference (CACCC), held this year on 3–4 April in the Uzbekistan capital Tashkent and jointly organized by the USAID-CAREC Smart Waters project, the World Bank’s Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Program for Aral Sea Basin project (CAMP4ASB) and the Central Asia Nexus Dialogue Project.
THE REGION IN BRIEF
After centuries of being tossed between conquests of the nomadic peoples of the steppe – the Huns, the Turks, the Mongols – Central Asia was folded into the Soviet Union from the Russian Revolution in 1917 up until the Soviet collapse in 1991. Suddenly independent, its nations were tasked to manage their landscapes and create new systems of their own to do so. Development of infrastructure, water resources, agricultural and trade policy progressed with little knowledge of sustainable landscape management to serve as a foundation.
Central Asia spans some 400 million hectares, about two-thirds of which are drylands. According to a comprehensive report published by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD) in 2016, anywhere from 40 to 100 percent of land in each of the region’s five countries is degraded. Since the mid-20th century, average temperatures in the region have increased between .5 and 1.6 degrees Celsius, seeing glaciers shrink to one-third of their volume in the early 1900s.
Crop land, pasture land and forests being challenged by the development of irrigation projects, livestock and land conversion for agriculture, coupled with winters and summers becoming increasingly extreme. Seismic hazards are ever present, with earthquakes commonly felt throughout the region.
Rural communities across Central Asia that depend directly on the land for their survival now face an increasing number of challenges from the many ways that degradation can manifest itself in landscapes of varying altitudes, ecosystems and uses.
Widely said to be one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, the Aral Sea that lies between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – formerly the fourth-largest lake in the world with more than 1,000 islands filling its waters – was dried down to just 10 percent of its original size by the early 2000s. This was due largely to Soviet irrigation projects that redirected its supplying rivers in preceding decades. A full collapse of an ecosystem, the draining of the Sea has led to the impoverishment of the millions who live in its basin, spanning all five Central Asian countries. The basin’s once-thriving fishing industry has disappeared, and pollutants and chemicals once held in the water are now deposited in the land, leading to toxic drinking water and a vast number of health issues ranging from tuberculosis to lung disease.
In Uzbekistan, misuse of water resources and irrigation has led to salinization of soil, in which the buildup of salts becomes toxic for plants. In some areas, the soil is completely salinized, and nothing can be grown. According to the World Bank, crop yields could see reductions of up to 50 percent by 2050 if not changes are made to the status quo.
In Kazakhstan, more than 60 years of conversion of landscapes for agriculture and industry has come at the cost of forests, leading to the degradation of some 48 million hectares nationwide, along with soil erosion and infertility and rampant dust storms sweeping through millions of hectares at a time, according to ELD. Phosphate mining has destroyed pasture lands, and water withdrawal for agriculture has depleted the hydration needed to sustain the native Tugai forests and improve the Aral Sea.
Under the Soviet regime, the health of Kyrgyzstan’s highland pastures was preserved by a mandated rotation system. Recent decades have seen this management practice disappear, resulting in the degradation of 30 percent of the country’s pasture lands on which migratory herding communities depend. Land encroachment is common, with farmers and grazers moving into forests of spruce, walnut and juniper for their own use. The national forest cover now dwindles at around 5.6 percent.
Pasture lands are also primary pain points for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where degradation comes in startling proportions. In the former, 89 percent of summer pastures and 97 percent of winter pastures are eroded from overgrazing; in the latter, 70 percent of all pastures have been degraded in some form. Stricter borders inhibiting longstanding practices of cross-border migration of pastoralists also leads to the overuse of certain landscapes as well as conflict between communities for access to resources.
Many of these issues come back to a lack of fundamentals, namely proper land management at all levels, sufficient data and evidence to inform policy, and education of rural populations on sustainable land use. To make transitions from salinization to proper irrigation; from deforestation to reforestation; from eroded and nutrient-deficient soils to fertility; and from declining to thriving livestock practices, the CACCC’s organizers are working to see more cooperation and action among local, regional, national and international land users and decision-makers.
The CAMP4ASB project, which began in 2015 and will run until 2021, has so far emerged as a leading effort in regional change. Its efforts to aid climate-smart production and land management are currently being carried out in the most vulnerable villages and communities in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, focusing on improving water resource management, livestock practices, sustainable energy, crop diversification and other specific needs raised by communities, with special attention given to those of marginalized groups and women.
The World Bank will also soon launch a second regional effort, the Resilient Landscape Program (RESILAND), which will focus on spreading sustainable, resilient, integrated restoration practices across Central Asia.
A focal point of this year’s CACCC will be a proposed regional “30×30” initiative, seeing countries in Central Asia and Europe lead the restoration of 30 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands by 2030. The initiative comes in the wake of the Astana Resolution adopted last year at a ministerial roundtable in the Kazakhstan capital, which affirms cooperation among nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia to address their similar landscape challenges and work to restore ecosystems in tandem.
Nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia have collectively committed 2.5 million hectares to the Bonn Challenge. Tying directly into the Challenge – and now, the newly adopted U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – the 30×30 initiative would aim to boost current commitments and cooperation to achieve much more.