This year, according to the whitewater-rafting guide, the water was too high, it was too dangerous. The group of beginners he was guiding down one of Kyrgyzstan’s most accessible rivers couldn’t handle the rapids ahead. Downstream, reservoirs were overflowing, causing authorities to lament the loss of precious water in summertime when it isn’t needed to make electricity.
The source of the problem is melting glaciers. In fact, Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers are starting to recede at an alarming rate. With them, the country’s once limitless supply of fresh water – and electricity – is washing away. The change threatens to disrupt a vital cycle: the glaciers melt in the summer when the water fills up reservoirs needed to produce power during the cold winter months when the glaciers accumulate again. Bishkek depends on hydropower to create 93 percent of the country’s electricity and hopes – to its downstream neighbors’ vexation – new hydropower plants will help end chronic shortages.
Those shortages and mismanagement in the sector helped spark the riots that forced former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev from office in April. Six months later, as a newly elected legislature prepares to form a cabinet, electricity policy is sure to be high on the list of the incoming government’s priorities.
Between the mid-1970s and 2000, the last time his institute took measurements, up to 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers have vanished, says Valery Kuzmichonok, an expert at the Institute of Water Problems and Hydro Energy at the National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek. They are now melting at a rate three times faster than they were in 1950, he says. If it keeps up, there will be a vast reduction of the country’s glaciers by the mid-21st century.
That will aversely affect all of Central Asia, potentially leading to conflict between upstream countries – including Tajikistan, also famous for its hydropower potential – and downstream Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which rely on seasonal melt to keep their intensive agricultural sectors going. Already, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are arguing over Dushanbe’s plans to build a large hydropower dam upstream, with Tashkent blockading rail traffic to Tajikistan.
By some estimates, Kuzmichonok says, only 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers will remain by the end of the century; many smaller ones will be gone within a generation. “Since our hydro energy system works on the basis of river runoff, our energy production will be reduced” by approximately the same amount.
The situation is dire, observes Nikolai Kravtsov, an energy expert and director of Yustin, a consumer rights advocacy group in Bishkek. “In 20 to 30 years, glacial melting will get to a critical point where there will be no ice left. And 90 percent of our rivers’ water comes from these glaciers. It will be a critical moment for our energy system as well,” Kravtsov cautions.
No one doubts the crisis, which will likely touch even the remote highlands, where nomads and herders have lived alongside the glaciers for generations.
“Satellite imagery presents a unanimous view of glacial wastage across the Tien Shan” Mountains, says Ann Piersall, a research geographer who recently spent a year in Kyrgyzstan’s headwater At-Bashy Region studying the effects of glacial melt on herding and farming communities. Piersall found that “in the At-Bashy region, half of interviewed subjects had observed a visible decrease in the extent of glaciated area in their lifetime” and blame glacial retreat for an increase in extreme weather.
Despite such warnings, rather than adapt to a changing climate, Bishkek is following Soviet-era plans to construct more hydropower plants.
The new government must improve its management of the energy sector, or risk the kind of unrest that brought down Bakiyev, says Amanda Wooden, who teaches environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and who has carried out research on resource management in Kyrgyzstan since 2001. “Key components of any savvy political platform should include improving water management – particularly increasing transparency in the sector and addressing corruption – [and] adapting to the impacts of climate change.”
Current plans do neither.
Many experts agree the colossal, $3 billion 1,900 megawatt Kambarata-1 and 360 megawatt Kambarata-2 hydropower cascade – begun by the Soviet Union in 1986 and restarted in the last few years – cannot address long-term energy shortages because they may be rendered obsolete by reduced water flows within a generation.
“The Kyrgyzstani government must begin adapting to climate change impacts and planning responses to changes in water supply,” Wooden says. Bishkek should “begin developing alternative sources of energy and not become wholly reliant on hydroelectricity.”
Kambarata may help Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower industry benefit in the short term, but the project will only pass the problem on to future generations. At the same time, the project on the Naryn River, which becomes the Syr Darya in Uzbekistan, is aggravating relations with downstream countries.
“Future predictions based on computer modeling predict that amplified glacial melt and increases in precipitation will initially increase water resources, but ultimately may result in a less stable water supply that could lead to shortages in lowland areas,” thus affecting all of Central Asia, Piersall explains.
Looking at the $3 billion price tag, some energy specialists suggest long-term alternatives. A thermal power plant tapping heat within the earth’s crust would be roughly half the price of Kambarata and not upset the downstream countries, says Kanat Abdrakhmatov, director of the Institute of Seismology at the National Academy of Sciences. Kyrgyzstan is full of thermal potential and the idea “is 100 times more ecological than those big hydropower plants,” Abdrakhmatov says. “I understand that now it is a hard time for our government, but if we ask China and propose they do the project here, I think they will be more than interested. Because once you have energy you can build anything you want.”
Moscow, which has promised to finance Kambarata in the past, may find thermal power less tempting. Control over the project means control over Uzbekistan’s water supply, a fact not lost on Tashkent as it does its best to thwart upstream hydropower dreams.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.