Looking at the bright green valleys filled with lush spring grass and the raging torrents of melt water cascading down the mountain sides it’s hard to imagine Kyrgyzstan suffering as a result of climate change but it will. Its mountainous terrain (42%is higher than 3,000m) gives it a unique set of challenges in terms of climate change and climate induced disasters are estimated to reach up to 1-1.5% of GDP.
Already rainfall patterns are changing. Average rainfall has increased by 6% over the last century. However rainfall has decreased at higher elevations. Rainfall events have become less frequent but more extreme so the rain tends to run off quickly. Both of which are causing pastures to deteriorate already exacerbating existing environmental problems caused by over grazing. This is further compounded by changes in snowfall and melt. Less snow is falling and temperatures are rising even faster at higher altitudes. This means that the snow is melting earlier which whilst lengthening the growing season means that less water is available during the hot and dry days in late summer.
The same process is causing the loss of glaciers, with a third of ice volume melting over the past 100 years. This is now accelerating which will, in the short term, increase water flows and may contribute to flooding. However by the end of the century river run off could be as low as half of current levels . All of this will have serious implications on the availability of water for Hydroelectric power, irrigation and human consumption.
Higher temperatures could also have a profound effect on the low lying valleys in which most of the arable farming is concentrated. Increased evaporation will exacerbate the build-up of salts in the soils and increase the demand for water whilst warmer temperatures will cause yields to decline. All these problems are compounded by old crumbling and poorly maintained soviet era infrastructure and traditional farming methods especially the use of flood irrigation. This requires large amounts of water and causes salinity in the soil.
Perhaps the most frightening consequence of climate change for Kyrgyzstan is that it’s mountains are the source for many of the rivers which provide water for its neighbours. In fact according to the American University nowhere else on earth are 3 countries are more highly interdependent in terms of water than Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And the place were these interdependencies intersect is the Fergana valley, the highly fertile tract of land that is split between the 3 countries. The water and other infrastructure was built during the Soviet Union and constructed with little regard for the borders of the largely artificially created Soviet Socialist Republics. However after the collapse of the Soviet Union those borders became actual international borders creating serious problems for their management. In some cases water pumps which are located on one side of the border provide irrigation water for the other side. Further compounding the problem is that upstream the water is held in dams used to generate electricity by Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz require the electricity during the cold winter whilst the Uzbeks want the water during the summer. Add in an already fructuous relationship between the two countries which has seen numerous border clashes and the eruption of serious inter-ethnic riots in Southern Kyrgyzstan which killed 450 people in 2010 and you create a potentially explosive situation which only needs a spark to set it off.