Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Climate Change in Central Asia Threatens Russia from the South, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 9 – Russians have been focusing on the impact of global warming on their northern regions, worried that it will turn the northern third of their country into an impassable bog but hopeful that it will leave the adjoining Arctic Ocean sufficient free of ice to allow for economic development and shipping.
Earlier this year, Oxfam released a report, entitled “Reaching Tipping Point? Climate Change and Poverty in Tajikistan,” based on interviews with people in that Central Asian country and its neighbors whose lives are being transformed by rising temperatures (www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/climate-change-poverty-tajikistan.html).
That report, because it posits that deteriorating climatic conditions in the region will both create economic and security problems in the region and lead ever more Central Asians to seek work in the Russian Federation, is attracting the attention of Moscow analysts who are clearly disturbed by these implications.
In an article posted on Stoletie.ru at the end of last week, Aleksandr Shustov argues that the Oxfam report because of its implications has “attracted attention to the crisis social-ecological situation which is emerging in many countries on the southern borders of Russia” (www.stoletie.ru/geopolitika/klimat_i_migracija_2010-03-05.htm).
The Oxfam interviews, Shustov says, show that people in Central Asia are already very much affected by “objective meteorological changes,” most importantly, “the rising air temperature,” which is leading to ever more frequent droughts, the melting of glaciers, and less water available for agriculture, industry and even human consumption.
And the situation, not only in Tajikistan but throughout the region, has been made worse by the collision of “demographic pressure on the surrounding environment and the irrational system of economics” which, Shustov says, “specialists on Central Asia have been warning about since the 1970s.”
The melting of glaciers as a result of rising air temperatures has already seriously reduced the water resources available not only in Tajikistan but in the downstream countries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all of which are experiencing or soon will experience “a reduction in harvests, food reserves and as a result, the appearance of the threat of hunger.”
Of “greatest concern,” the Moscow analyst writes, is “the melting of glaciers which are the main source of water for the trans-border rivers” of the region. Glacial melt, Oxfam notes, supplies 10 to 20 percent of the water flow of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers during normal times, and up to 70 percent during drought periods.
But rising air temperatures threaten this source of water in good times and bad, Shustov points out, and consequently, people downstream are suffering in various ways, forced to change their way of life – in rural Kyrgyzstan, for example, different animals are being raised – or leave in order to survive.
Uzbekistan is somewhat better situated because of its size and the availability of land, but if it does not get enough water, its 28 million people will not be able to have the irrigated fields that they need to maintain their agricultural production or the industries or even potable water they require.
But even before these countries face disaster, they are already having to confront declining agricultural production as a result of water shortages and even the stopping often for long periods of time of many industries because not enough electric power is now being generated by the hydro-electric dams there.
As energy has become more expensive and irregular, Shustov continues, Central Asians have turned to the forests for walk, reducing the amount of wood available and worsening the water situation because deforestation has had the effect of lowering the water table in many parts of that region.
If these ecologically-driven developments intensify as seems likely, the Moscow analyst concludes, inter-ethnic or even international conflicts over water are likely to become more frequent. And at the same time, the number of Central Asians who will seek to move elsewhere will dramatically rise.
Prior to the current economic crisis, Shustov says, the countries of that region sent more than five million people each year to work in Russia, and they sent home money that constituted from 13 percent of GDP in Uzbekistan to 27 percent in Kyrgyzstan to an almost unbelievably high 49 percent in Tajikistan.
In the event that climate change makes living in Central Asia more difficult, people there will seek to leave not just to earn money abroad and then return but to resettle in other countries with “a more favorable climate and not in the last place, in Russia,” presenting that country with the kind of immigration that will “sharply change” the ethnic composition” of parts of Russia.
Such pressures and possibilities, Shustov says, “must be taken into consideration” as Moscow considers adding new states to the Customs Union because that would be “a common economic space” in which not only goods, services and capital could “move freely” but an ethnically diverse “labor force” as well.

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