Glacier Melting and Water Security in Central Asia

The Syr Darya river is a vital source of fresh water for Central Asia. The river has its source in Central Asia’s ‘water tower’, the Tien Shan mountains, and flows though Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to the remains of the Aral Sea. River flow in the summer comes from glacier and snow melting in the high mountain ranges. Climate change puts this water supply at risk, as glaciers retreat and seasonal snowpack’s disappear. When glaciers retreat, river flow temporarily increases, reaching a maximum tipping point known as ‘peak water’ after which, flows reduce as glaciers recede and disappear completely.

The aim of this project is to improve estimates of the timing of ‘peak water’ in order to understand when to implement adaption strategies to reduced river flow.

Compounding the problem of water scarcity from glacier retreat, is the issue of water sharing between the former Central Asian republics.  Water sharing has been a source of tension between the central Asian states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Previously the upstream republic Kyrgyzstan released water to the downstream countries in the summer for irrigation and hydropower production. In return, the downstream republics (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) provided coal and gas to the upstream stream countries to generate electricity in the winter. This trans-boundary water arrangement came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and disputes there were normally resolved by Moscow were left to the newly formed states to settle. This has proved to be a difficult transition.

Adding the uncertainty of climate change to this backdrop may exacerbate the tensions over water. Climate models predict an increase in temperatures ranging from +1.6 to +7.8 °C by the end of this Century which will have substantial impact on Central Asia’s water supply. The sustainable development of the Central Asian states will depend on maintaining adequate water supply through effective trans-boundary governance. This project aims to address how climate change will impact scarce water resources within a risk-based framework that will lead to better informed governance decisions.