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A worrying drought in Central Asia


Climate change manifested itself in a particularly alarming way in the form of drought in the summer of this year, aggravating already scarce water resources in Central Asia. If plans to adapt to climate change are not implemented rapidly in the region, the ecological crisis, which is simultaneously economic, social and political, could have serious geopolitical repercussions.

Central Asia feels the full impact of climate change


Central Asia is one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change: the 3rd national report on the climate of the Kyrgyz Republic, written in the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Climate, shows that the average annual temperature of Kyrgyzstan has risen by +1.6 °C over the last 100 years, whereas this rise is “only” +0.6° C globally.


Amu Darya River – © Sergey Dzyuba / Shutterstock

At the beginning of 2021, the scientists of meteorological agencies and politicians in Central Asia sounded the alarm on the low level of streams and rivers and the coming drought during the summer months. This is the most striking dimension of climate change in this mountainous continental region greatly dependent on the glacier melt of Tien Shan (Celestial Mountains) to supply the region’s rivers and people with water.

The climatic phenomenon observed is an increasing change in the rainfall regime at both high and low altitudes, especially in 2021. Regarding the glaciers of Tien Shan, this is occurring with more precipitations in the form of rain rather than snow, according to recent scientific studies. The flow resulting from the glacier melt has become more unstable and faster. Instead of a stable and constant flow that recharges the groundwater and irrigates crops, the more unpredictable nature of river discharges affects the availability of water resources. At the same time as this phenomenon of changing rainfall at high altitude, extremely high temperatures have been observed at low altitude (from 7 to 10 degrees higher than the normal seasonal temperature in June 2021 in Uzbekistan) and a decrease in precipitations. This has resulted in a drought that is now devastating Central Asia.


The impacts on Central Asian societies


© UN in Uzbekistan

Firstly, the drought and extreme temperatures hinder good agricultural development, leading to the creation of a vicious circle: with higher temperatures, crops require more water to survive, at the very time when it is less available. The direct impact of this is the loss of a large share of the crops that are insufficiently irrigated. The final outcome is a two-fold food crisis due to the shortage, and higher food prices. This year, the effects of drought on farm production combined with those of Covid-19, which had already greatly affected the supply chain.

The drought also led to a shortage of grass and hay to feed cattle; however, livestock breeding ensures the livelihoods of a whole swath of the population in Central Asia, where nearly half the people of the region live in rural areas.

The lack of precipitations has led to an abnormally low water level in the rivers and a fall in the level of the groundwater, resulting this summer in rationing the consumption of water by the inhabitants of certain Uzbek towns in the region of Samarkand due to the excessively low level of the river Zarafshan.

Lastly, the network of rivers in Central Asia also plays a role in hydroelectricity production. The greater variability of available water resources has led to additional uncertainty for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan downstream, both of which fear non-compliance with agreements on sharing water and the energy production produced by the dams. In June, the Toktogul reservoir in Kirghizstan, one of the largest in the region in terms of energy production, held 10.9 billion cubic metres of water, far from the 14.4 billion cubic metres recorded in June 2019.


A flagrant lack of political foresight


Kyrgyz soldier at Golovnoi – © Danil Usmanov

In the light of recent events, concern is increasing in the face of a risk of conflict in Central Asia linked to water. In April 2021, tension over water resources opposing rural communities located on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan quickly deteriorated into open conflict. Gun and mortar fire caused 36 deaths on the Kirghiz side and 20 on the Tajik side, obliging thousands of inhabitants to flee their villages.

On the contrary, an agreement on water sharing between Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, signed at the end of May 2021, represents a positive model of cooperation for the region.

These events emphasize the lack of concrete plans to adapt to the effects of climate change in both national and cross-border frameworks. Environmental problems, which will become increasingly important in the future, are occurring in a wider geopolitical context of unease. It is absolutely essential that agreements to share water resources between Central Asian countries are implemented or updated and protected to ensure compliance and thus peace between cross-border communities.


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