Central Asia Faces Grim Environmental Future -- UN Report
Mudslides produced by heavy rain over the past 10 days have wrought havoc in southern Kyrgyzstan, damaging hundreds of homes and killing livestock. Such natural disasters could well become more severe and more frequent in Central Asia over the coming decades, according to a new United Nations report on climate change.
The report, issued April 6 by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paints a grim picture for Central Asian governments and policymakers. In the strongest warning yet issued about the influence of humans on the environment, the report says with "high confidence" that soon the region's mountain ranges will not be able to provide the water necessary to support current agricultural practices.
"Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis" is a summary of over 1,000 pages of findings made by the IPCC. The report initially forecasts avalanches, increased runoff and earlier spring peak discharge from glaciers and floods due to unseasonable rains. But by the end of the 21st century, disappearing glaciers in the Tien Shan, Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges will result in decreased river flows and severe water shortages. Temperatures may experience a dramatic increase, while crop yields are forecast to fall 30 percent by 2050.
The April 6 summary is just one of a series of publications from the IPCC that have identified significant problems for water supplies in the area. "The IPCC's warnings about melting glaciers, floods and eventual water scarcity have been identified as one of the key vulnerabilities," said John Coequyt, an energy and global warming specialist for Greenpeace. "It's one of the report's most important findings. But few governments worldwide understand this, and I don't think any of the countries in Central Asia have taken it onboard."
While rising temperatures may provide short-term benefits for the region's lucrative cotton industry, the lack of ample irrigation may ultimately doom the cash crop. Mass unemployment looms in already unstable areas, especially in the Ferghana Valley, if Central Asia's cotton sector collapses.
In Tajikistan, the cotton industry employs about 80 percent of the country's rural labor force and the crop is the country's second largest export. However, 75 percent of Tajikistan's poorest citizens live in cotton growing areas, according to the World Bank.
Elsewhere, cotton production employs up to 3 million Uzbeks and generates 24 percent of the country's $8.7 billion GDP, providing the Uzbek government with an annual income of over $1 billion. These exports account for about 60 percent of Uzbekistan's hard currency export earnings.
To avoid economic and political disaster, experts say immediate water-sector and agricultural reforms are needed. Central Asia's geography, which compels states in the region to share water resources, dictates an international solution. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hundreds of inter-governmental documents have been signed on water policy. Yet each agreement suffers from a fatal flaw -- none is legally binding. Thus, tension over water resources -- pitting upstream (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) against downstream nations (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) -- continues to plague regional relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Fast action in some instances could be undertaken without inflicting major pain to national economies, experts contend. "Only for climate-change deniers could [the IPCC report] appear to be a worst-case scenario." said Peter Bloch, an agrarian reform expert who has worked on a variety of donor-funded programs in Uzbekistan. "[In Uzbekistan] there is a huge potential for water savings with relatively minor investments in equipment."
The Uzbek government, however, is unlikely to take the steps necessary to achieve such savings. Agrarian discontent simmers in Uzbekistan, where government forces have clashed with farmers and local business owners. Meaningful reforms that encourage better resource management would, at the same time, give farmers greater control over their crops -- something that is not in the political elite's interests.
The problem is such no state can solve it on its own. Yet, regional leaders have not demonstrated any desire to agree on a comprehensive regional framework to manage water resources. "Individual farmers will not have any incentive to be environmentally
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