Uzbekistan grapples with urgent climate change problems

Uzbekistan grapples with urgent climate change problems
The Aral Sea has lost 80% of its volume in the last 40 years.
By Clare Nuttall in Tashkent August 12, 2021

Uzbekistan is already the site of the world’s worst catastrophe created by humans, the drying up of the Aral Sea, and things will only get worse in the coming decades as temperatures are set to rise by considerably more than the global average. 

The Aral Sea started to disappear back in the 1960s, a result of Soviet planners who decided the benefits of turning Central Asia into one of the world's largest cotton-producing regions outweighed the loss of the Aral fishing industry. What happened was an ecological disaster on a scale rarely seen before as the sea receded from the shores leaving behind dry sand that whipped up into toxic storm clouds, devastating human health and agriculture. Today particles of sand from what was once the Aral Sea bed are being deposited on glaciers in the Pamir mountains, accelerating the melting of ice and snow.

Intensive use of water from Central Asia’s two great waterways, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, has continued post-independence to irrigate cotton and other crops. The Aral Sea has lost 80% of its volume in the last 40 years, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Not only that, Uzbekistan faces serious issues of water shortages, and soil salinity and erosion, a situation that has been “worsened by the disappearance of the Aral Sea”, according to a report from the UNDP, which is working with Uzbekistan on its climate adaptation strategy. Around 20% of the country’s population are affected by water salinisation. 

Looking ahead, Uzbekistan’s average temperatures could rise by as much as 4.8°C above the 1986-2005 baseline by the 2090s, says a report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. The report forecasts that daily maximum and minimum temperatures will warm faster than average temperatures, which, it warns, may amplify impacts on human health, livelihoods, hydrological resources and ecosystems. 

According to local hydrometeorological institute Uzgidromet, the temperature is rising very quickly in the country, and is expected to increase by between 1.3°C and 3°C by 2050, Uzgidromet deputy director Firuz Safarov told bne IntelliNews. It is rising fastest in Karakalpakastan, a region that is already mainly desert and which has been devastated by the loss of the Aral Sea. 

On top of this, says Safarov, “the intensity of precipitation is broadly the same but the duration of the precipitation period has changed in recent years and its coverage also changed in the regions of the republic of Uzbekistan.” 

Such changes, says Safarov, “affect all sectors of the economy agriculture, water resources and others. Our country is very vulnerable to climate change.” 

He stresses that as well as getting hotter, the weather is becoming less predictable; on the day of our interview it was unseasonably cool in Tashkent (temperatures soared to 45°C the following week) and the previous night there had been torrential rain in the Navoi region, destroying many hectares of cotton. Central Asia as a whole was suffering from its worst drought in 13 years, leading to water shortages, lost crops and rising food prices in Uzbekistan.

Such events will become more common, with several reports from international financial institutions (IFIs) and other observers saying droughts, flooding, shortages of drinking water, extreme heat and other problems will intensify. The ADB/World Bank report says the annual probability of experiencing a severe drought is projected to increase significantly this century, with severe drought conditions expected to occur in nine out of every ten years by the 2090s under all but the most optimistic scenario. 

“Impacts from climate change make Uzbekistan increasingly vulnerable to: droughts, high temperatures, heat waves, heavy precipitation, mudflows, floods, and avalanches. Droughts may become more frequent due to river runoff decrease, specifically from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers,” says the World Bank. 

Many of the ecological problems in Uzbekistan are shared across the Central Asian region, where the basins of the two great rivers that feed the Aral Sea span four of the five republics. Tensions over shared water resources erupt periodically. A row over a disputed water distribution centre appeared to be the trigger for clashes between local inhabitants and the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in April, and such conflicts are only expected to get worse. 

Tashkent's response 

Uzbekistan is fairly unusual among developing Asia nations in that it has made firm commitments to become climate neutral by 2050, even though demand for energy is set to increase as the population grows and becomes more affluent. Warming brings further problems such as the demand for more electricity to power the growing number of air conditioners. “The current system is hardly handling the huge increase in electricity demand in peak times,” says Deputy Minister of Energy Bekhzot Narmatov in an interview with bne IntelliNews.

In May 2020, the government unveiled its national Low-Carbon Energy Strategy, developed with support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and consultancy Corporate Solutions. The strategy says Uzbekistan plans to develop alternative energy sources, including solar, hydro and wind, to produce electricity with low-carbon emissions, as well as to build a nuclear power plant.

Earlier in the month, the government published a Concept Note setting out its plans for electricity generation to the year 2030, under which it aimed to reduce the country's reliance on gas-fired power generation from the current 83% to 50%, as well as setting goals for nuclear, solar and wind power generation. In August 2021, the energy ministry said it plans to set new, more ambitious targets for the share of renewables in the energy mix. Since 2019, numerous solar and wind projects have already been announced. There are also efforts to modernise inefficient old gas power infrastructure, and reduce losses in the energy system; methane losses in particular are more harmful for the environment than carbon dioxide emissions. 

At the same time as modernising and expanding energy infrastructure, Uzbekistan is also pursuing greater energy efficiency, including among households. As outlined by Narmatov to bne IntelliNews, the plan is to achieve this through a combination of liberalising the electricity market, which will see prices rise to the market value for all but socially vulnerable households, and through trying to educate the population about the climate crisis. 

“We need to develop a new kind of consumer culture. [Use of energy] is unfortunately dependent on the cost; when it comes cheap nobody cares, cheap things are not valued. Maybe people will disagree with what we doing but we need to preserve the environment for future generations,” according to Narmatov. 

Currently the price charged to domestic consumers for gas is just one quarter of the export price. Narmatov says that efficient heating throughout the country can save up to 2bn cubic metres of gas, and a further 3 bcm will be saved through new renewable generation capacity, and 1bn from modernising gas transmission technology to minimise losses. “I personally believe that energy efficiency is the key for sustainability in Uzbekistan,” he adds. 

Narmatov tries to lead by example, including by simple steps such as teaching his children to switch off lights and appliances when they leave a room. “We need to make these things part of the culture …. [people] hardly think about energy efficiency, but when we tell them it will bring financial benefits they start thinking about it.”

“When it comes to climate change it’s important for us to realise if we don’t change the way we live it’s going to be the end. This is not something to reset or start over again. Every person must act responsibly … In Uzbekistan we already have man-made catastrophes like the Aral Sea that was destroyed in order to turn desert into fields and through the irresponsible use of water,” says Narmatov. 

From global to local 

Uzbekistan is investing into renewables and working to make its energy use more efficient to reduce emissions as its contribution to tackling the global climate crisis. But there is also the ecological devastation at home and the need to prepare for the future impact of climate change. 

The pandemic has raised awareness of some of the problems. “The pandemic has exposed gaps and the need for increasing resilience in our climate and heath sectors. It has further shown the need to strengthen food systems in the agriculture sector,” said Doina Munteanu, UNDP deputy resident representative in Uzbekistan, in a statement in December 2020.

Uzbekistan is working to formulate an effective climate adaptation planning process under the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) programme launched on December 3, 2020 with support from the UNDP and funded by the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

Investing into more efficient irrigation is one area that can help to address the problems facing Uzbekistan; according to the World Bank, deteriorating infrastructure and poor water management are responsible for losses worth about $1.7bn a year. The development bank, which launched a project to improve irrigation in the Karakalpakstan region, points out that "inefficient water management and deteriorating irrigation and drainage systems have contributed to growing salinisation of land and water resources in irrigated areas, exposure to dust storms and poor-quality drinking water.” The traditional system of transporting water in open canals is also very inefficient. 

In February 2021 President Shavkat Mirziyoyev issued the decree on the adoption of a strategy on management of water resources and the development of the irrigation sector for 2021-2023 that includes measures for infrastructure, capacity-building, sustainable water management and improvement of the irrigation sector.

Back to the Aral Sea, and there is an ongoing effort to reduce the sand storms coming from the former sea bed area by producing saxaul trees. The trees, which are sand-loving and salt-tolerant, were planted on an area of 35,100 hectares under a joint UNDP and Uzbekistan project. The trees’ root systems penetrate as far as tens of metres down, strengthening the soil and preventing the release of toxic dust into the atmosphere.