Warming, floods and desertification: Kazakhstan’s doomsday scenario

Countless are the summits, conferences and other brainstorms that should have rationalised the distribution of water among Central Asia’s former Soviet republics. In Soviet times, it was easy: you just did what big brother Kremlin said – for the better or for the worse. Now that decision-making has come down to the neighbourhood, squabbling prevails. Only one player in the game does not heed all this and makes her own decisions – Mother Nature.

by Charles van der Leeuw, KZW senior contributor

Warming, floods and desertification: Kazakhstan's doomsday scenarioThe process can be watched with the naked eye. Each year, the snow on the Tien Shan mountain range as seen from downtown Almaty is becoming less. Abundant white is making place for grey spots that become larger and larger by the year. What is traditionallly measured in millions of years is now happening at a single-year pace. But political leaderships of the countries involved, meaning Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, seem to ignore it all. The latter two have more than 80 per cent of all freshwater sources within their borders. Uzbekistan depends on them for about 60 per cent of its irrigation and drinking water supplies, and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for virtually all. The main rivers bringing it in are the Amu Darya and the Syr Daria, which flow through the intensively irrigated Fergana Valley before entering the dry zones to the north and the west.

In ancient Central Asia and Siberia, rivers used to be considered to have divine souls in the minds of animist believers. The Volga is nicknamed Mother of all Russia up to this day. There is a good reason for such cults to subsist. But Man has tried to tame the divine even long before Friedrich Nietzsche turned the idea into a philosophy. by turning nature into architecture, man-made natural schemes evolved. Less than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which are among the poorest republics in the former USSR in terms of GDP and average personal income, are at the centre of this development.

The Syr Darya brings in 14.5 cubic kilometre of water into Kazakhstan on a total inflow of 18 cubic kilometre per annum. As for now, inflow remains stable thanks to a number of reservoirs built in Soviet times, including Kairakkuumskoye in Tajikistan, Toktobulskoye in Kyrgyzstan, Charvakskoye and Adnizhanskoye in Uzbekistan and Shardarinskoye in Kazakhstan. The three main Kazakh irrigation hubs are Kyrzylordinskaya, Kyzylkulsaya and Kazalinskaya in the south of the country. However, the overall trend is moving away from stability. Before the mid-1990s, 75 per cent of the water outflow from Toktobulskoye was discharged in spring in order to provide southern Kazakhstan’s three main irrigation networks with enough water for spring sowing campaigns. Today, up to 60 per cent of the reservoir’s water is used in winter to keep its hydroelectric station working at full capacity in order to keep the light on in Kyrgyzstan – much to the distress and anger of its neighbour to the north.

Ironically, for the moment it looks as though global warming and the meldown of glaciers it causes saves the day. According to a recent report by the Eurasian Development Bank (not to be confused by the Eurasia Bank which belongs to three of Kazakhstan’s most powerful oligarchs) the meltdown of glaciers in the Tien Shan to the immediate south of Almaty, the Altay to its northeast, the Ala-Too south of Bishkek and the Pamir-Alay in eastern Tajikistan is set to increase the volumes of river water runoff by up to three times within no more than a decade or so if the current process persists. This will increase the frequency of mudflows by five times, and things are due to get much worse if the development is accompanied by so-called lake bursts. If for instance the Adygin basin breaks through its barriers, mudflows are likely to become monthly routine, and when the same happens with larger reservoirs such as Yaschinkul and/or Isfairam there will be mud avalanches lasting for years without much disruption.

“Kyrgyzstan has 1,923 lakes with a total water surface of 6,840 square kilometre,” the EDB report reads. “The largest lakes are Issyk Kul, Son Kul and Chatyr Kul. Freshwater reserves held by these lakes amount to an estimated 1,745 cubic kilometre. Kyrgyzstan’s main lakes account for more than 55 per cent of the total water surface of all the lakes in Central Asia.

In all, under present-day conditions Kyrgyzstan withholds between one-fifth and a quarter of the water its landscape generates. If the process of global warming persists, that proportion can only go up due to increasing evaporation. This is what is due to happen through the current century, analysts warn. Except for some very large ones in the Himalaya, by the end of this century all glaciers in Central Asia are doomed to have disappeared. Their meltdown will flood downstream areas first and turn them into deserts later. Increased precipitation will only compensate for the loss in upstream areas, leaving southern Kazakhstan and the region to its southwest dried up.

In the northern provinces of Kazakhstan, the situation is not much better. Water supplies through the main two rives Ili and Irtysh are dwindling as well. The danger exists that Lake Balkash, the country’s largest freshwater reservoir, is due to follow the fate of the Aral Sea in decades to come. At present, half of the lake consists of freshwater and the other half of salty water. Salt levels are on the increase as inflows from the Ili river declines at incredible speed – though with ever more extreme fluctuations from season to season. “Deglaciation is set to reduce the river runoff in years when water contents are low by 25.4 to 27.9 per cent and increase it in years when contents are high by 31.4 to 42.4 per cent,” the EDB report reads. “The runoff is set to drop by two times in the months of July, August and September and subsequently all but double in April, May and June.

In all, as early as by the end of the 2030s Kazakhstan’s arable territories will have to reckon with a loss of more than 10 per cent of its water supplies if the worst scenario, which the EDB took from a scale developed by a global warming think tank in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES), takes place. Under a more moderate scenario, which takes the global implementation of the Kyoto Protocol into account, losses will stil be in the order of 6 per cent. “If the increase in temperature reaches 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, the steppe climate of the upper foothill zone of the Iliysky Alatau will transform into a desert climate,” the EDB warns in its report. “These areas, currently covered with grass and bushes, will lose their loess cover and turn into wastelands. Virtually all liquid precipitation is due to result in mud flows, and mudflow sediments will cover the most productive soils in the plains under the mountain. A sharp increase in solid runoff from rivers flowing into the Ili will accelerate thesilting process of the Kapchagay reservoir, and change the hydrological conditions in the Ili’s delta and Lake Balkash. Farms subsisting on irrigation water will face serious problems, as the water is going to be unfit for irrigation and irrigation systems will be filled with debris.”

The worst thing of it all is that fundamentally speaking there is no need for it. If one takes a closer look at the question whether there will there be a basic shortage of water due to the speedy process of global warmingm the rather surprising answer is no. The loss in river water supplies is set to be compensated by heavier rainfall – but this remains out of control where distribution and use for agriculture and industrial purposes are concerned. Fact remains that the amount of hydrogen and oxigen, which together form the earth’s crucial liquid for life to survive, has remained the same throughout the planet’s history and will be the same within the stratosphere that encloses it unless some global-scale nuclear turmoil changes the structure of the bulk of the entire clout’s atoms. So much for the dangerous game advocates of nuclear energy are playing – since massive radioactive dumping could spark just that. But as long as societies keep them downsized, water there will be. How much will be when and where, however, is an issue that could be resolved by human intervention – rationally orchestrated, that is. Thus, the proper answer to the ongoing doomsday scenario remains proper management – in close regional cooperation, that is. Else, chaos and disaster are bound to prevail.


country period change in dgr.C
Kazakhstan 1950-2005 +0.26
Uzbekistan 1936-2005 +0.29
Turkmenistan 1961-2005 +0.18
Tajikistan 1940-2005 +0.10
Kyrgyzstan 1883-2005 +0.08

source: Eurasian Development Bank


area scenario A2 scenario B2
Kazakh highland +14.0% to +22.5% -9.3% to -12.3%
Kazakh lowland -7.0% to -10.2% -6.0% to -6.8%

source: Eurasian Development Bank

(in degrees Celsius)

country temperature precipitation
Kazakhstan +3.3 to +6.7 +27%
Uzbekistan +3.0 to +6.7 +7%
Turkmenistan +2.8 to +5.9 0%
Tajikistan +3.4 to +7.0 +18%
Kyrgyzstan +3.3 to +7.1 +46%

source: Eurasian Development Bank