Climate change in Central Asia: effects and mitigation strategies

Central Asia is a particular region with a very fragile environment, characterized by the presence of two large lakes, the Aral Sea and Lake Balkash, and a very dry climate

Climate change is a problem that affects the whole world. Its main effects are related to lower rainfall, adverse agricultural changes, melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, increased frequency of forest fires, and vulnerable indigenous communities. Central Asia is a particular region with a very fragile environment, characterized by the presence of two large lakes, the Aral Sea and Lake Balkash, and a very dry climate. Aside from the northern and eastern regions of Kazakhstan and the two small mountainous states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which benefit from a significant share of rainfall, most of Central Asia is in a water-stressed situation. Climate change has altered the region's already harsh climate, resulting in the problem of synchronizing agriculture with the new climate.

In 2020, a combination of wind and rain damaged a large area in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, also causing the collapse of the Sardoba Dam in Uzbekistan and flooding downstream areas along the Syr Darya. Other frequent problems are related to the dust storms generated after the desiccation of a large portion of the Aral Sea, to the high summer temperatures that cause health and sanitation problems, while the damage to crops is caused by high temperatures and intense rain. The pandemic has partially reduced air pollution, thanks to lower demand for oil and gas caused by less road and air traffic, but Central Asian environment is still suffering.

Areas of concern

Climate change in Central Asia is leading to a general worsening of environmental conditions, with three main areas of concern: eastern mountains, northern grasslands and southern drylands.

In the mountainous regions there is a general shrinking of snow cover and glaciers, with an increase in precipitation in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and south-eastern Kazakhstan. This is leading to a shift in the peak flow of rivers flowing through Central Asia, damaging families, crops and dams. Energy insecurity is becoming more and more of a problem due to changing water levels at dams, causing structures to collapse in the winter and reduce hydroelectric power generation in the summer.

Northern grasslands in Kazakhstan are characterized by an increase in rainfall, leading to floods and reducing the productivity of crops, while in summer heat waves are more frequent and dangerous both for crops and peoples. Seasonal temperature excursion is getting stronger, with frost and heat waves that affect the region. The combination of extreme events both in summer and in winter are a potential cause for food insecurity in the region in the next years.

Southern drylands are witnessing a substantial deterioration of the environment, with drought and extremely high temperatures in summer, milder winters, frequent sandstorms, and a major decrease in water flow reaching southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The level of the Caspian Sea is increasingly fluctuating, while the attempt to rehabilitate the Aral Sea, now called the Aral Desert, is not leading to any concrete results in terms of the flow of water that reaches it and the reduction of pollution. Water and sanitation problems are on the rise, while the extension of cotton crops and the obsolescence of canals and water infrastructure further reduce the water reaching the Aral Sea.

Energy sources and mitigation strategies

While the five economies remain rather inefficient in terms of energy required and wasted, it is possible to see some positive changes. Kazakhstan, in particular, has made a series of investments in renewable energy, both solar parks and wind farms. Hydropower generation remains a minor source of electricity, while coal-fired power plants maintain a pivotal role in Kazakhstan economy. Uzbekistan mostly relies on gas-fired power plants and hydropower plants, showing a growing interest towards renewable energy and the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Navoi region.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the smallest countries in the region, are developing new hydropower plants, as the Rogun dam in Tajikistan and the Kambarata I in Kyrgyzstan. Notwithstanding that, the presence of coal mines in both states is pivotal in assuring energy security, since they have to prevent energy crisis in winter, when the dams need to store more water for agricultural purposes of the downstream countries in summer. Turkmenistan relies only on natural gas, with almost no other sources of energy, and its investments are concentrated on the reduction of energy waste.

There is a general tendency in Central Asia for the development of a low-carbon economy, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan seem the countries best suited for a full-fledged energy transition, as it appears in their policies and in their current energy mixes. Turkmenistan has developed an economy where the role of natural gas is too pernicious, therefore the reduction of its share of the energy mix will necessarily take decades. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan need reliable energy sources. Their general lack of funding for major investments in hydroelectric plants or for the import of energy from abroad has meant that their coal mines are currently the only option to avoid future energy crises.

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