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Global Ideas

Global warming adds to Kyrgyzstan's vulnerability

Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics are being hard hit by global warming, but awareness about climate change remains low among governments in the region. It's up to a handful of local NGOs to pick up the slack.

Two people ride a horse and a donkey along a narrow strip of land on Lake Son-Kul with the Tien Shan mountains in the background.

The Tien Shan mountain glaciers are melting, disrupting farming in Kyrgyzstan

Home to a population of 5.5 million, Kyrgyzstan is a country that rarely makes the news. But it was catapulted on to the front pages earlier this year when riots broke out led by opposition leaders protesting against government corruption and spiraling prices.

Incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by the protestors, and an interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva was formed. Calm has since returned to the streets of Kyrgyzstan, but in a country whose economy has never been the same since the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc, instability still lurks around the corner.

Worse, the country faces serious long-term climatic problems given its geographical location and topography.

Immediate and long-term problems

Almost half of Kyrgyzstan consists of steppe and desert, the country's summers are hot and the winters cold. The central Asian mountain republic is completely landlocked, which means it lacks an important climate regulator. In the absence of an ocean, Kyrgyzstan sees little rainfall, with just 250 to 280 millimeters per square meter falling per year – compared to 830 millimeters in Germany.

Moreoever, accounting for just 4.25 percent of its total area, the country's sparse forests are overexploited for wood and can contribute little to hydrological processes.

The Pik Pobeda Mountains

Glaciers are melting so fast in Kazakhstan that the livelihoods of millions will be affected

These factors leave Kyrgyzstan particularly vulnerable to climate change. According to the Kirghiz Academy of Sciences, the average annual temperature has risen in the country by 2 degrees over the last forty years. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, puts the global rise in the same period at a far less dramatic 0.5 degrees.

These rising temperatures have led to a melting of the Tien Shan glaciers, causing flooding in spring. But in summer, rivers invariably dry out, leaving farmers struggling with irrigation problems.

In the long-run, nothing less than Kyrgyzstan's entire energy supply is at stake, dependent as it is on hydroelectric power plants. Water reserves are dwindling. The level of the Lake Issyk Kul in the northeast of the country has dropped by almost one meter since 1998.

Water supply at stake

"Water is the key issue in central Asia," according to Heino Meessen, who oversees a number of environmental projects in the region for the University of Bern.

"The reliance on agricultural irrigation systems in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan makes the problems caused by climate change and the melting glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan especially acute," he stresses.

"The consequences of climate change are palpable in this region," Nurzat Abdyrasulova from the Kirghiz environmental group Unison, confirmed."Unfortunately, the public is not addressing them."

The country is one of the poorest in Asia, with some 40 percent of the population living below the breadline and 18 percent unemployed.

"Climate change is not top of their list of priorities," Abdyrasulova said.

Inefficient energy use

Nurzat Abdyrasulova

Nurzat Abdyrasulova received the 2007 Energy Globe Award at the EU Parliament

But energy efficiency is exactly what's at the top of the agenda at Unison, and other Kirghiz NGOs such as the Central Asian Mountain Partnership (CAMP), which works in the mountainous regions. These environmentalists believe that increasing awareness of energy efficiency is the fastest route to progress.

For the time being, public understanding of the issue is poor, not least because the population of the former Soviet republic is used to rock-bottom coal and energy prices.

But most people live in dilapidated, badly insulated homes. Unison has estimated that these conditions, combined with bitingly cold winters, result in most of the Kirghiz population using three to five times as much energy to heat their homes as the average EU citizen.

In mountainous areas, energy costs swallow more than half of people's monthly incomes, says Meessen.

"With energy prices rising, many people heat with wood and therefore use as fuel all the bushes and shrubs they can find," he said. "This exacerbates environmental problems."

One consequence is increasingly frequent landslides, triggered by the soil erosion that occurs when no more plants are growing on slopes and securing the ground.

"Something needs to be done," Nurzat Abdyrasulova said. "All the Central Asian states need to pitch in, because they all have the same problems."

Starting at the bottom, working up

A Kirghiz yurt, against a mountainous backdrop

Inhabitants of the mountainous regions in Central Asia are hard hit by global warming

But Unison's activism has fallen on deaf ears within Kyrgyzstan's government. The recent change in leadership has not improved matters. The new President Rosa Otunbajeva acknowledges climate change as a problem, but is unwilling to set environmental targets.

It's a similar story in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, where energy policies are inextricably tied to the country's gas and oil production and reserves.

But things might start to improve in Kyrgyzstan after the parliamentary elections scheduled for this October.

"Real change will only be possible with a 'trickle up' mentality," Meessen said. "What's needed are not ambitious projects such as huge power plants that rob farmers of their water in summer and produce electricity for export, but projects that actually help the general public."

"Insulation methods and information campaigns not just aimed at villagers in the rural areas but also at the politicians in the capital are essential," he stressed.

He estimates that in the last 12 years, Switzerland has spent 115,000 euros ($145,000) on such environmental projects in Kyrgyzstan but 20 million Euros on major projects.

"That needs to change," Meessen said. "Western sponsors also need to take responsibility."

Torsten Schäfer (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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