From rapid glacier melt to escalating aridity, when it comes to aquatic concerns, Central Asia is a region of extremes. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the sharing of water resources has become a source of tension in the region, with its five countries struggling to allocate what water they do have in the face of a horizon of further decrease. The fact that universities are introducing courses and degrees in water diplomacy is telling of the need for peaceful and efficient negotiations on this essential asset.
But, in this part of the world that receives relatively little attention for the major environmental changes that are taking hold, technological, social and financial solutions are being implemented to help locals adapt and restructure their livelihoods to fit the new climate. In brief, here’s what’s happening.
In the past half-century, the glaciers of the region’s Tien Shan and Pamir mountains have melted up to 30 percent, and a further third is expected to melt by 2050. Melt water from snow, glacier and permafrost supplies around 80 percent of the total river runoff in Central Asia. But as glacier melt increases, communities are at risk of flooding in the short-term and more extensive drought in the future.
Snow and glaciers melt in the summer and flow down into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the main veins supplying the region with its water. This feeds into hydropower plants, which supply the region with 90 percent of its total energy, as well as irrigation for crops that feed some 70 million people. As temperatures rise, more precipitation will come in the form of rain rather than snow, changing the timing and amount of river discharge and seeing river water evaporate even more readily.
Changes in the weather are also becoming less predictable and harsh. Most of the region’s crops depend on irrigation – in Turkmenistan, some 97 percent of cropped area is irrigated – making water and weather predictability much needed. More than 80 percent of drought-caused losses come from agriculture; in 2000 and 2001, a major drought resulted in economic losses of USD 800 million from the decrease in agricultural production.
Irrigated wheat is the region’s primary food source, but abnormally wet autumns and springs often cause crop disease, while seasons that are too dry and warm lead to unproductive drought. Grazing pastures for livestock also shrivel in dry times, and heat stress affects the health of the animals.
The interplay between power generation and irrigation is delicate, explained Paul Vallely, a program leader at the World Bank, at the 2019 Central Asia Climate Change Conference (CACCC) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in April. “In Central Asia growing demands for power could be met through development of hydropower potential” he said. “But the sites for potential hydro plants are typically in upstream countries, whereas it is in the downstream countries that the need for irrigation water is greatest. This creates a dilemma. The upstream countries want to generate power in the winter, when they need clean power for heating, but the downstream countries want the water in the summer to irrigate their crops.
“Thus, the management of water is a very sensitive issue. Decisions on changes that impact on the use of water must be taken very carefully. The rights and needs of stakeholders must be identified such that all the social impacts of projects are understood and addressed transparently. There is also a need to ensure that benefits are shared across all stakeholders.”
The governments of Central Asia have begun taking proactive measures to improve what humans can do to help. For example, a comprehensive assessment of water resource training management programs in Kazakhstan was recently conducted, and curriculum revision suggestions were presented to the government alongside ways to improve the training of specialists such as hydraulic engineers.
Weather forecasts are intricately tied to the decisions and livelihoods of the region’s land users. Lead times on natural disaster warnings give people the opportunity to prepare for droughts, floods and mudslides, and weather predictions inform crop-planting calendars to ensure as much productivity as possible.
Central Asia is already known for having a strong hydrometeorological network, and hydrometeorological services currently provide forecasts for five to seven days with 80-90 percent accuracy. But agencies are working to improve their forecasts further. Uzhyrdromet, the national hydrometeorological service of Uzbekistan, is developing a “super computer” to be used by all services of Central Asia, explained the first deputy director general of Uzhydromet Bakhriddin Nishonov at the CACCC. Information collated by different regional agencies will be sent to the computer, which will then produce improved modeling and forecasting scenarios.
Depending on the soil, crops and vegetation can either help or hurt the intensity of floods and other calamities as well as affect water distribution. To this end, the Soil and Water Integrated Model (SWIM) developed by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research is being applied to show how the region’s river basins work as holistic systems. SWIM simulates the effects of different hydrological, biogeochemical and vegetation processes, while simultaneously incorporating the anthropogenic impacts of water storage, irrigation and water withdrawal.
“We’ve applied our model to eight river basins,” explained Anastasia Lobanova of the Institute. “This type of modeling really gives us an idea of how the current system is functioning, how current water resources are formed, how they will look in the future, what we have to prepare for.
“I think that water management is one of the oldest things on earth… and people in different regions have developed different water management strategies. That can help us understand whether we can import some to Central Asia, or maybe export some strategies to other regions.”
While political tools for change are underway, so too are a number of adaptive technologies. Under the World Bank’s Climate Adaptation and Mitigation for Aral Sea Basin (CAMP4ASB) program, loans are being distributed to land-users to adapt to climate change’s effects on water. This includes financing for rainwater collection, repairing pipes and sealing canals, drought-resistant crops with low water dependence, frost-resistant fruit trees, shade and shelter for livestock to lessen heat stress, and learning how to use and plan with meteorological information.
A new World Bank program, the Resilient Landscape Program (RESILAND) will dovetail CAMP4ASB to make regional landscapes more resilient to climate change at large, promoting sustainable and integrated landscape practices at all levels, from farmers and families to big business and government.
“We are already doing a lot in the regions,” said Paola Agostini, lead natural resource economist at the World Bank. “But more can be done, and this now can be done at a much larger scale… We are going to have a programmatic approach, bringing together different funding, different donors, different sources of financing to really restore and transform the landscapes of Central Asia to make them more productive and more resilient to climate change.”