COMMENT: Tajikistan’s glaciers melting – far more than just a loss of ice

We know that the nexus between climate change and water is strong. The Arctic ice is melting, sea levels are rising, glaciers are shrinking, and rains are becoming rarer in dry regions, while increasing in frequency and power in wet areas. This link is repeated, stressed, and exacerbated in Tajikistan, where the melting of glaciers represents a crucial issue.

There are no longer doubts concerning the fact that glaciers in Tajikistan, and in the mountains of nearby countries, are decreasing in both area and volume due to a rise in air temperatures. Everything has been scientifically proven. If we consider the totality of Tien Shan glaciers – a large system of mountains in Central Asia nourishing some of the rivers crossing Tajikistan – a recent study shows that during the last half-century, between 1961 and 2012, these glaciers lost between 12 and 24 per cent of their total area, and between 12 and 42 per cent of their total volume1

Unfortunately, Tajik glaciers are following the same pattern. Until a few decades ago, Tajik glaciers covered 6% of the total national territory, while nowadays this has dropped up to 5%2. Though at first glance it may seem meaningless, this reduction has worrying consequences for Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s vulnerability to water-related natural disasters

Tajikistan relies heavily on glaciers and snowfields for the supply of water to its hydrological system. The seasonal melting of glaciers provides around 20% of the runoff for the main rivers in the region, while this figure rises to 70% during the dry season. Thus, any change that affects the melting of these glaciers can lead to sizable changes in the hydrological system making Tajikistan widely exposed to water-related natural disasters, especially mudflows and floods.

In 2005 and 2010 a rapid increase in air temperature triggered a sudden and considerable melting of Tajik glaciers that brought about disastrous mudflows and floods. These disasters caused up to US$50-100 million of infrastructure and agricultural damage3. Moreover, only few weeks ago at the end of July, another flood took place in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, a region in the south of Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan, after a flash ice melt. Many houses were destroyed and more than 600 people were left homeless4. Nowadays mudflows and floods continue to threaten around 85% of Tajik territory5, and these kinds of events will become more and more frequent as the air temperature increases.

Flood in Pamir_TAJ_July 2015_Mustafo Mamadnazarov

Melting of glaciers: increasing temperatures

The melting of Tajik glaciers is indeed a continuous and ongoing process. Increasing temperatures affect existing glaciers not only by shrinking their area and volume, but higher temperatures also hinder the replenishment of the glaciers because of a sizable reduction in summer snowfalls. Due to the dryness of the winter months and the height of mountains, summer snowfalls represent the foremost way of nourishment for these glaciers, and a reduction in this kind of snowfall means condemning Tajik glaciers to an unavoidable decline.

The importance of water

Nevertheless, the problem of glaciers melting in Tajikistan does not only manifest itself through flooding. Water is an essential resource for the Tajik economy as a whole. On the one hand, Tajikistan’s energy sector relies predominantly on water. Indeed, hydropower accounts for 98% of the total electricity produced nationally. On the other hand, the Tajik agricultural sector cannot develop without sufficient access to water, and for Tajikistan agriculture is a central economic sector representing 20% its total GDP and 53% of national employment6.

If glacier melting continues, river flow regimes will significantly change in the long term. Within the next 20 years, the flow of the two main rivers of the region, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, will probably decrease by about 20-30% of its current rate 7. Thus, river runoffs will diminish, while water demand will be likely to increase because of economic and population growth. Consequently, glacier melting will not only cause temporary disasters such as mudflows and floods, but will also pose a long-lasting threat by hindering Tajikistan’s economic development, food and energy security, human health and stability.

Governmental stance

Aware of the risks ahead, the Tajik government has always been pro-active about climate change and water management on both the international and domestic stages. Besides other activities and initiatives, some years ago Dushanbe launched the “State program for the monitoring and preservation of glaciers 2010-2030″ to monitor the health of Tajik glaciers over time. Furthermore, at the High-Level International Conference on the implementation of the International Decade for Action “Water for Life” (2005-2015) the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, acknowledged that climate change will be “conductive to more frequent natural disasters, accompanied by a significant economic loss and sometimes loss of life”. He also added that during the last 10 years in Tajikistan “water related natural disasters have caused to the economy of the country [a] loss of US$1 billion and took hundreds of lives”8.

Clearly, it is evident to everybody that saving Central Asian glaciers would mean assuring better economic and social conditions for Tajikistan, and its population, in the coming decades. Nevertheless, nowadays not all international actors are fighting climate change as seriously and effectively as is needed. The future of Tajikistan is on thin ice. Let’s hope that Paris will symbolise a new breakthrough in this race against time and climate.

 

By Damiano Fior

Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Programme at The Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC)

 

Main image: Journeys on Quest: Creative Commons License

Image: Flooding in Pamir, Tajikistan, in July 2015, by Mustafo Mamadnazarov

 

 

  1. Nature Geosciences (2015), Substantial glacier mass loss in Tien Shan over the past 50 years.
  2. Tajikistan Country Situation Assessment.
  3. ibid.
  4. IOM (2015), Ice melt triggers Tajikistan flooding, Displacement.
  5. Tajikistan Country Situation Assessment.
  6. World Bank Tajikistan Country Overview 
  7. Tajikistan Country Situation Assessment.
  8. Statement by the President of the Republic of Tajikistan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *