If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
Initially — until 2030, according to the authors — the rivers may swell due to glacial melt. But after mid-century, the smaller glaciers will cause “melt water in the mountainous parts of the river basins … to decline substantially.” By 2100, glaciers will shrink by about 50 percent in the 2-degree model and 67 percent with a 4-degree temperature increase.
Glacier melt will be accompanied by more frequent and longer droughts and the inevitable water shortages are expected to amplify the threat of conflict. Poorly managed, haphazardly shared water resources along contested borders have already been a major source of friction between Kyrgyz and Tajik communities.
Moreover, mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rely almost entirely on hydropower dams to produce their limited supplies of electricity—93 percent and 99 percent, respectively, according to World Bank data. Though the president of downstream Uzbekistan has warned of war over water resources, both his neighbors are trying to build more dams: Kambarata-1 in Kyrgyzstan (which Russia has promised, somewhat obliquely, to help fund) and Rogun in Tajikistan, which would be the world’s tallest dam.
Of course, any change to water flows will affect agriculture, public health, and the overall economy. With warmer temperatures, the report’s authors expect increased runoff in winters, and less water available during the summer growing season. Fears about food security are compounded by the region’s rapidly growing population.
“Prolonged periods of above average temperatures will exacerbate heat stress of agricultural crops, leading to decreasing plant productivity. Droughts, meanwhile, are very likely to increase desertification in the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan,” the report says.
Some of the more worrying findings can be mitigated by modernized irrigation techniques, but implementation would require a major shift in policy from unimaginative governments that have shown themselves, over more than a generation of independence, to be largely resistant to change. Without urgent reform in the way it handles agrarian policy, Uzbekistan – Central Asia’s leading agricultural producer – can expect “yields for almost all crops…to drop by as much as 20–50 percent (in comparison to the 2000–2009 baseline) by 2050 in a 2°C world due to heat and water stress.”
The one thing that seems to excite policy makers in the upstream countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is building dams—indeed, Tajikistan’s president has turned the construction of dams into a national ideology. The report’s message to the region’s dam builders is quite clear: either hurry up or give up. Rogun, designed 36 years ago, is expected to take 14 years to build and 15 years to fill. By the time it is fully operational – in the mid-2030s – the Vakhsh River feeding it is unlikely to look anything like it did in 1978.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.