Climate change and water shortages closing in on Tajikistan and Central Asia

Published: 17th February 2010

New Oxfam report says retreating glaciers and more extreme weather could dangerously erode food security, livelihoods and even regional stability by 2050

The people of Tajikistan, many already feeling the strains of climate change, will be increasingly afflicted over the next 40 years unless immediate action is taken to mitigate the effects, according to a new report released today by Oxfam.
The report, Reaching Tipping Point? Climate Change and Poverty in Tajikistan, says that the country‘s glaciers - mainly found in the Pamir Mountains that make up part of the Trans-Himalayan range - are retreating and could lead to greater water shortages and disputes in the wider region in the future.
The painful blow of climate change has been sharply felt in rural areas of Tajikistan in recent years where 1.4 million people are already food insecure.  Last summer’s good rains brought some relief to rural communities across Tajikistan that had previously suffered from three consecutive years of drought, failed harvests and one of the harshest winters on record.  But the long-term trends are clear – and ominous.
“It is indisputable that glaciers in Tajikistan are retreating. It is also indisputable that if glaciers continue to retreat, and the country experiences more extreme weather, countless people will be dealt an even harder blow.  Nearly one and a half million people are already food insecure and that figure will likely rise if climate change is not addressed.  There could even be a dangerous ripple effect across Central Asia, with countries throughout the region potentially wrestling over dwindling water resources in coming decades,” said Andy Baker, Oxfam Tajikistan’s Country Director.
Tajikistan’s plight highlights the international injustice of climate change, as it is one of the countries least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. This mountainous, poverty-stricken, Central Asian country ranks 109th in the world for all greenhouse gas emissions, 129th in emissions per capita, and its people emit less than one tonne of carbon dioxide per head per year as compared to nearly 20 tonnes by North Americans.

Some key data disclosed in the report:

  • There has been a rise by 1.0-1.2 degrees C in parts of the country over the past 60 years
  • The number of days per year the temperature has reached 40 degrees C has increased
  • Droughts will likely be more intense and frequent in the future; in 2008 Tajikistan suffered one of its worst droughts on record while the winter of 2008 saw temperatures of minus 20 degrees C for more than a month, causing serious crop loss
  • According to cited scientists, 20 percent of the country’s glaciers have retreated and up to 30 percent more are likely to retreat or disappear by 2050
  • Fedchenko Glacier, the country’s largest, has melted at a rate of 16-20 metres per year
  • The consequences of climate change could overstretch many countries’ adaptive capacity in the region, contributing to political destabilization and triggering migration

The report is based on interviews conducted in the Vose, Fakhor, and Temurmalik rural areas of the Khatlon region bordering Afghanistan in the country’s south.  Oxfam helps poor farming communities cope with increasingly frequent droughts, flooding and other disasters throughout Khatlon, known as Tajikistan’s ‘bread basket’ during Soviet times.  Additional interviews were conducted in the Ferghana Valley agricultural areas of Spitamen and Ganchi in the Sugd region of northern Tajikistan.  Seventy percent of the Tajik population live in agricultural areas – there are very few other means to a livelihood outside the capital – the majority in Khatlon and Sugd.
Those interviewed spoke of the unusual hardships they have faced in recent years.  Many farmers experienced widespread crop loss caused both by searing summers and bitter cold in the winter.  During the drought of 2008, grain harvest totals were down between 30-40 percent compared to the previous year.
Many farming communities in Tajikistan largely rely on over-stretched irrigation systems and on rainfall to cultivate and reap a harvest, and are so poor that they are forced send male family members to Russia to work as labourers to help support the family.  Any shocks – like repeated droughts or flooding caused by climate change – can push families over the edge.  A local Oxfam partner explained to the report’s author that previously droughts lasted for one year only, but now they can last for four or five consecutive years.   As one farmer explained, “When rain starts, it’s good, it’s like humanitarian aid.”
Andy Baker added:
“Droughts are increasing and temperatures are rising.  Harvests are failing for lack of water. Entire swathes of the rural population of Tajikistan have already suffered greatly in recent years, barely able to feed their families.  Imagine what their situation will be in 2050 if adaptation measures are not put into place soon and if global green house gas emissions are not adequately reined in. It could be calamitous.”

The Report – Oxfam’s Key Recommendations:

  • At a community levelimprove access to water and methods of food storage and preservation. Provide more support and training in agriculture.  Scale up better insulation of houses, use of energy efficient stoves, biogas, solar power and use of passive solar greenhouses
  • At a national level: support farmers to adapt and have more resilient livelihood strategies; integrate climate change responses across government departments and into national planning; strengthen disaster risk reduction programmes; implement research programmes on climate change and its impacts
  • At regional and international level: negotiations must get straight back on track to achieve a fair, ambitious, and binding deal to tackle climate change, which is now overdue. To deliver their fair share of global efforts, rich countries would need to provide $200 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt and reduce their own emissions. 
    They need to commit to reduce their own emissions with at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 to have a decent chance to keep global warming below 2°C.  In Central Asia, institutions for regional co-operation must be strengthened, in particular to monitor and manage water resources in the light of glacial melt, higher temperatures and increases in water scarcity.

Read more

Read the report: Reaching Tipping Point? Climate Change and Poverty in Tajikistan
On the frontlines of climate change: TajikstanJennifer Abrahamson blogs
Join the global call for a fair, ambitious and binding climate deal.
Photo-story: The impact of Climate Change on the planet’s water resources

Entire swathes of the rural population have already suffered greatly. Imagine what their situation will be in 2050 if adaptation measures are not put into place soon.
Andy Baker
Oxfam Tajikistan’s Country Director