Climate Change in Central Asia: An Assessment of its Impact and Crisis Management
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF
Introduction

Climate change is having a significant impact on Central Asia, affecting social, economic, and environmental facets of society. Extreme weather conditions such as the coldest winters, flooding, earthquakes, melting of glaciers, and drying up of rivers and lakes have been some of the major issues hampering the environmental balance in this region. Over the past 50–60 years, the region witnessed a notable 30 percent decline in glacial surface area, which has affected water resources and contributed to shifting climate conditions. The hydrology of Central Asia has been disturbed by global warming, resulting in increased evaporation rates, less precipitation, and higher temperatures. Rising temperatures in Central Asia outpace the global average, as highlighted in a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [1]

The five Central Asia Asian countries are low to mid-income economies that are highly dependent on agricultural production for which they rely on inter-state water resources. The two largest rivers in the region are Syr Dary and Amu Darya. Due to imbalanced sharing and mismanagement of the interstate water bodies, there have been issues among these countries. These water bodies are now more negatively impacted by climate change, which will be a major environmental concern in the near future. According to ADB estimates, water flows in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya basins will drop by 10 percent to 15 percent by 2050. These two major rivers are vital water sources for Central Asian countries. Water levels in the Syr Darya basin might decline by up to 30% by 2050-2100, and by up to 40% in the Amu Darya basin, making it even more critical for governments to work together to ensure the region's water is managed sustainably. [2]

Several human-induced disasters in Central Asia have already had adverse effects on the ecosystem. One of the most notable instances is the drying up of the Aral Sea owing to the mismanagement of water resources. In recent years, with international partnering organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, the Aral Sea is now being revived by the surrounding countries, although the results are not particularly promising. Furthermore, it does not appear that any lessons have been learned from this disaster.

Given the decline in water levels in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya basins, Uzbekistan today faces a water deficit of 3 billion cubic meters, which could increase to 7 billion cubic meters by 2030 and up to 15 billion cubic meters by 2050. [3] The Taliban administration is also building a canal on the Amu Darya River which is going to divert a significant amount of water from this river affecting the socio-economic developments in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are highly dependent on the water supply from Amu Darya for agricultural needs. Also, the rudimentary technology that the Taliban is using to build this canal is already wasting a lot of water on this river.

The implications of environmental degradation in central Asia extend to ecosystems, agricultural patterns, water resources, and human health across Eurasia, emphasizing the urgent need for adaptive strategies. Recognizing these challenges, efforts are underway to better address climate change in the region, considering economic and social costs alongside environmental concerns.
This is the first time the leaders of the Central Asian countries participated in COP28, which was held in Saudi Arabia.

Crisis Management

In order to mitigate these risks, the Central Asian governments as well as their development partners will need to take on a number of strategic challenges. These include building low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure that will help the region transition to carbon neutrality and climate resilience; enhancing the capacity of local communities; and enacting progressive institutional and regulatory reforms that will draw in the necessary investments. To achieve this, enormous economic and social transformations as well as regional cooperation are needed.

Central Asian countries are actively addressing the challenges posed by the climate crisis through collaborative efforts and strategic initiatives. To strengthen their response, a high-level meeting was conducted, emphasizing joint efforts to enhance climate and disaster resilience, with support from organizations like (the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) UNDRR in November 2022. High-level representatives from Central Asian states, the European Union, the United Nations, and other key stakeholders discussed the creation of a joint Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction in Central Asia, the first of its kind in one of the world's most climate-vulnerable regions. Climate resilience, green development, infrastructure development, data sharing, and capacity building were prioritised in order to provide a more comprehensive framework for disaster risk reduction and climate change in Central Asia.
Recognizing the urgency, Central Asian countries are also leveraging key figures and data to illustrate the impacts of climate change in the region, emphasizing the vital need for comprehensive strategies. Mitigating and adapting to climate change in Central Asia necessitates a significant increase in investment in climate change research and the implementation of sustainable solutions.

All Central Asian countries have signed the Paris Agreement and set decarbonisation targets. Central Asian republics have also been supporting renewable energy since 2018. Most countries in the region have implemented some form of green economy strategy or programme to improve resource efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The outcomes of these projects have been mixed. Renewables accounted for only 2.5% of power generation in Kazakhstan in 2020, whereas coal accounted for 70% (IEA 2021), and the percentage of solar and wind power in the energy mix remained small in all countries. In the immediate term, a significant transition to clean energy appears improbable.[4]

Two of the largest Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are leading the way for green energy development in Central Asia. In discussions with other countries, they try to find ways to transition to carbon-neutral energy.

Kazakhstan is exploring opportunities to set up a Nuclear Energy power plant. Negotiations have been going on with a few countries to fulfill the technological requirements. In February 2023, the Kazakh Ministry of Energy announced that four firms had been shortlisted as possible reactor technology providers: China National Nuclear Corporation, Russia's Rosatom, French EDF, and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company.[5]

Similarly, Uzbekistan has partnered with Saudi Arabia and China to put up a hydrogen power plant in the country. Construction has begun on the first green hydrogen plant in Central Asia, according to Chinese state-owned Power China and Saudi Arabia's ACWA Power. A wind farm will supply energy to the Uzbek factory, which is expected to create three thousand metric tonnes of green hydrogen annually. 33 million cubic meters of natural gas will be replaced with 500,000 tonnes of ammonia fertiliser produced annually using the hydrogen.[6]

In conclusion, Central Asian countries are proactively engaging in climate management, focusing on collaborative efforts, early warning systems, and resilient strategies to combat the challenges posed by the climate crisis. Those initiatives, if managed well and completed on time, will make a great impact on the Central Asian country's efforts to combat climate change issues. However, it's crucial to note that the efficacy of these strategies varies per country. Moreover, a united effort from individual nations as well as the international community is needed to address challenges related to climate change.

References

[1] Bermet Talant, ‘How Is Climate Change Affecting Central Asia? RFE/RL, July 01, 2022. https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-climate-change-water-talant/31924317.html
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Sabyrbekov, R., Overland, I., Vakulchuk, R. (2023), ‘Introduction to Climate Change in Central Asia’ in Sabyrbekov, R., Overland, I., Vakulchuk, R. (eds) Climate Change in Central Asia. SpringerBriefs in Climate Studies. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-29831-8_1
[5] Assel Satubaldina, ‘Nuclear Power Plant in Kazakhstan: What’s Next’, Astana times, 18 August 2023. https://astanatimes.com/2023/08/nuclear-power-plant-in-kazakhstan-whats-next/#:~:text=Kazakhstan%20possesses%20the%20world's%20second,including%20activities%20like%20uranium%20extraction.
[6] ‘ACWA Power, PowerChina break ground on green hydrogen plant in Uzbekistan’ Reuters, December 1, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/acwa-power-powerchina-break-ground-green-hydrogen-plant-uzbekistan-2023-12-01/

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