This article is part of a Landscape News series on Central Asia, published in conjunction with the 2019 Central Asia Climate Change Conference in partnership with the World Bank.
In Central Asia, where annual average temperatures have increased from .5 degrees Celsius in the south to 1.6 degrees in the north since the mid-20th century, and where weather-related natural disasters have caused economic losses of up to 1.3 percent of countries’ annual gross domestic product, climate change cannot be adapted to independently by each of the region’s five countries.
Because climate change issues in the region are transboundary, “we must join efforts to establish resilience in social and economic models,” said Iskandar Abdullaev, executive director of the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC), at the opening of the second Central Asia Climate Change Conference (CACCC) on 3 April in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The inaugural CACCC was held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last year.
“Central Asia is one of the regions most affected by climate change,” said Kristalina Georgieva, interim president of the World Bank, at the opening of the event. “You experience it all, from glacier melt to heat waves to droughts to floods to landslides.”
The lives of more than 70 million people in the region’s five countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are regularly vulnerable to natural disasters, unpredictable weather and ecological fragility. The drying of the Aral Sea, which was once the world’s fourth-largest saline lake, has left fishermen struggling to find new sources of income. Changes in the seasons are damaging the crops of farmers. Pastoralists struggle to sustainably feed their livestock and prevent further degradation of forests and grasslands.
“[This conference] is about improving the quality of life of the people at the forefront of a changing climate,” said Georgieva.
Rapidly melting glaciers, which have now shrunk to one-third of their size in the early 1990s, coupled with changes in precipitation patterns and permanent snow cover, are quickly and heavily affecting how the region uses its shared water resources. Water resource allocation must be negotiated between upstream and downstream countries, and water management practices for irrigation, power and industry must become more sustainable.
As such, intersections of water, energy and food issues were the main focus of the conference’s plenaries and five parallel discussions, as well as its three pre-sessions on academics, youth and technology.
A number of solutions-in-progress were highlighted. For instance, cactus varieties are being developed as feed crops for Kazakhstani cattle near the Chinese border, where desertification is increasingly pervasive. Greenhouses using drip irrigation as well as drought-resilient seed varieties are reducing water needs in agriculture. The CAMP4ASB project is allocating investment funds for small- and medium-sized enterprises developing agricultural products with high marketability and low use of water and energy, according to Gayane Minasyan, lead environmental specialist at the World Bank.
Across the region, countries’ hydrometeorological services are being improved to provide more accurate weather forecasts, which translate into better seasonal predictions and flood and drought warnings. This in turn creates more resilient societies with stronger policies and more informed land-use practices. Students can opt for new degrees and studies in water diplomacy at the region’s major universities.
Such disruptive technologies can “leapfrog over traditional development pathways,” said Benoît Bosquet, director of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice. Having visited the Aral Sea basin in the lead-up to the conference, he recounted witnessing how the Uzbek government is planting salt- and sand-loving saxaul trees on the land that was formerly the seabed. The new forest, which he described as an “extreme type of climate adaptation,” could help foster climate mitigation and resilience while also helping communities develop.
The political will for regional change is growing. All five countries have submitted climate action plans for their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Last year, they also together adopted the Astana Resolution, committing to bring 2.5 million hectares into restoration by 2030 as part of the Bonn Challenge. Uzbekistan has already completed its commitment of 500,000 hectares, in part due to its efforts with the saxaul tree.
Proposals for new efforts and initiatives were also put forth during the conference. The “Environment for Central Asia” (OCCA) initiative would help support more interaction between the region’s countries, to work together to achieve their NDCs and contribute to the 2030 agenda on sustainable development. “Initiative 30×30” would bring Europe and Central Asia together in a commitment to bring 30 million hectares of land under restoration by 2030, in support of the Bonn Challenge and the new UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. And, as described by Paola Agostini, lead natural resource economist at the World Bank, the Resilient Landscape Program (RESILAND) would see the World Bank devote more resources to spreading resilient, sustainable and integrated restoration practices across the region, from households to supply chains to government policies.
Low-carbon development, national action on climate change prevention, and close collaboration with scientific organization must continue to progress, said Iskander. The challenges loom large, but can also be viewed as “unique opportunities,” he said, “that allow us to be optimists.”