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Mad Max in the Land of Genghis Khan? How Climate Change is Threatening Stability in Central Asia

Central Asia has always had a fraught history with peace: ethnic and political violence, suffering from spillover effects of the war in Afghanistan, returning fighters from Iraq and Syria as well as less than booming economies and increasing Chinese involvement in the region, the crisis in Xinjiang and transitions of governmental power all threaten stability. However, in the medium term, it has become apparent that another long standing issue has come to the surface— the water and energy nexus threatened by climate change. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, five independent republics emerged. They are now known as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Due to the uneven distribution of water resources in the region, there has developed an interdependence between upstream (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and downstream countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan). 

During the rule of the Soviet Union, water management systems were centralized to skirt around allocation-related conflicts. Part of this system was a unique provision of mandatory energy supplies by downstream countries to upstream countries in return for water services. This has devolved into uncoordinated competition of upstream countries and their downstream riparian counterparts. A hodgepodge of regional, national and interstate institutions now manage the hydraulic infrastructure, which is distributed across the countries. 

Due to the limited reserves of fossil fuels, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are increasingly looking into exploiting the transboundary water resources to harness its energy potential. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan suffer from inefficient energy supply which forces them to release water in winter in order to generate energy. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rely on the water releasing in summer in order to conduct irrigated agricultural activities, which make up a large part of their economies.

Research analyst Alina Dalbaeva at International Crisis Group articulates the issue best: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan desire water while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan desire electricity. No area has exemplified this tension greater than the Ferghana Valley, where Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan all converge. To secure energy, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have decided to exploit existing hydropower plants (HPP) during the whole year as well as build brand-new hydropower hydropower facilities. This has alarmed the neighboring Uzbeks, who loathe being at further mercy of their neighbors when it comes to controlling the flow of the Panj and Naryn rivers. Meanwhile Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are accusing Uzbekistan of gorging on the river water to irrigate their agricultural land. Numerous instances of conflict over water resources have occured, including the Uzbekistan turning off power grids and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan threatening to stop the flow of water downstream. 

Thus, tensions have always existed but are even more fraught now: existing rivalries and political manipulation of the waters threaten to escalate to an actual war under the threat of global warming. In 2019, Central Asia had its third summer in a row of unusually high temperatures. The city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan hovered around 42°C with southern parts of the country reaching an astounding 44°C. In Tajikistan, temperatures reached 43°C by July 2019. 

Besides increasing droughts in the region, the rising temperatures have two major consequences. The first is retreating waters that were previously used for irrigation leaves behind saline soil. This makes the land non-arable. Alarmingly, Uzbekistan experienced more than half of its agricultural lands turning saline. 

Secondly, the temperatures are causing the fastest melting of Central Asian glaciers. Tajikistan alone has 8942 glaciers, and approximately 20% of these have already retreated. Up to 30% of these have a risk of completely vanishing by 2050. Disappearing glaciers mean a decreasing water supply in the region. The availability of water in Amu Darya, which is one of the main rivers in the region, are expected to decrease by 40%. Paradoxically, the disappearing glaciers can cause floating ice masses which both have the potential to block water flow and in other occasions cause rivers to overflow their banks. 

Tianshan is the largest mountain range in the region, which is up to 2500 km long and 350 km wide and passes through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan among others. The seasonal snowmelt, which functions as the region’s water tower, contributes the majority of water in the region’s rivers. However, according to researchers led by Professor Chen Yaning from Xinjiang’s Institute of Ecology and Geography in Urumqi, rising temperatures have led to the range losing “total water storage” at a rate of about 223 million cubic metres per year. 

There are concerns that tensions between the upstream and downstream countries will increase due to the pressures on water supplies. Currently, disputes are related to the tug-of-war exchange of energy for water and vice versa. Given the forecasts of melting glaciers and more variability in water flows from the glaciers, energy production from the hydropower plants might reduce. This scenario could result in poor public service provision as well as the economy at large. This is fertile ground for more severe water related conflicts than already exist to occur. 

In addition, there are worries that the borders of scramble for natural resources are poorly designed to handle such pressures. Fergana Valley, as aforementioned, is a combination of Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz enclaves which had traditionally never known borders until independence. A mishmash of factors, including incomplete border demarcations, resentments over agricultural land and water,  the high population density of the area and unequal growth of ethnic populations lend itself very well to land grabs and informal expansion in the hopes that it will be settled by de facto circumstances and not by arbitration. 

Equally damaging, climate change has had very tangible impacts upon families’ incomes and assets. For example, the increasing salt concentration has resulted in the extinction of most fish in remaining parts of the Aral Sea. This puts a lot of pressure on fishermen in the region who are now without their livelihoods, and on the local populations without stable supply of fish. In 2015, floods in Tajikistan damaged crops and houses. Pamir, a mountainous region mostly in Tajikistan, saw 80% of its population without electricity and food due to floods while mudslides damaged more than 1500 houses south of Tajikistan. 

The implications for regional security and stability are stark, as unmet basic needs and destruction of livelihoods are combined with undermined physical security, health and food security. Given the Central Asian states poor record on institutional and financial frameworks and strategies in pursuing solutions, an Arab Spring-like revolt is definitely possible. In addition, it is likely that labor migration to Russia will increase if workers are not engaged by the state. While there is no direct link between high labor migration and terrorism, it is certainly the case that most of the Central Asian recruitment for ISIS originated in Russia. 

The problems of Central Asia are not new, but the solutions just might have to be. The most pressing problem is that Post-Soviet governments have struggled to build strong institutional and technical capabilities to deal with the looming threat of a climate war in replacement of the centralized planning economy that previously ruled the area. Without any independent institutional entities, the countries struggle to develop strategies for risk reduction. 

The only way forward is a creation of strengthened regional cooperation networks and bilateral agreements for transboundary water sharing that is mediated by a neutral third party, such as the World Bank or the United Nations. Perhaps the Central Asian governments would benefit from utilizing the  services of UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) which emphasizes water diplomacy. To support monitoring of the management of climate related risks, it is paramount to develop independent data sources that are accessible to all while also facilitating greater regional dialogue regarding the transboundary water sharing. Last but not least, conducting a cost-benefit analysis for possible models of regional agreements would perhaps make the politicians of the respective countries more amenable to such discussions by unlocking their so-called “political will.” It is imperative for the governments to act now, before lawlessness rather than law becomes the rule of the land, and wastelands dominate what was once the lifeblood of the region. 

Sources:

Sharifzoda, K. (2020). Climate Change: An Omitted Security Threat in Central Asia. Thediplomat.com. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/climate-change-an-omitted-security-threat-in-central-asia/.

Janusz-Pawletta, B., & Gubaidullina, M. (2015). Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia. Legal Framework to Strengthen Interstate Cooperation and Increase Regional Security. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from http://journals.openedition.org/asiecentrale/3180

COMPETING DEMANDS: UPSTREAM AND DOWNSTREAM COUNTRIES. (2015). Retrieved 13 April 2020, from https://centralasia-watercrisis.weebly.com/water-crisis-in-central-asia/competing-demands-upstream-and-downstream-countries

 Dalbaeva, A. (2018). End the Weaponisation of Water in Central Asia. Retrieved 13 April 2020, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/kazakhstan/end-weaponisation-water-central-asia

 Sharifzoda, K. (2020). Climate Change: An Omitted Security Threat in Central Asia. Thediplomat.com. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/climate-change-an-omitted-security-threat-in-central-asia/.

 Chen, S. (2017). How climate change in Central Asia could spark regional conflict. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2059862/how-climate-change-central-asia-threatening-spark

 Mirimanova, N., Nordqvist, P., Born, C., & Eklow, K. (2018). Central Asia Report: Expert Working Group on Climate Related Security Risks. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://www.e3g.org/docs/Central_Asia_Report_Expert_Working_Group_on_Climate_related_Security_Risks_Final.pdf

 Mirimanova, N., Nordqvist, P., Born, C., & Eklow, K. (2018). Central Asia Report: Expert Working Group on Climate Related Security Risks. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://www.e3g.org/docs/Central_Asia_Report_Expert_Working_Group_on_Climate_related_Security_Risks_Final.pdf

 World Economic Forum.Climate change is threatening security in Central Asia. Here are 4 ways to reduce the risk. (2019). Retrieved 13 April 2020, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/security-in-central-asia-is-threatened-by-climate-change-here-are-4-ways-to-reduce-the-risks/

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