An International Response to Central Asia’s Severe Disaster Risks

Editor’s Note: In his opinion piece from June 12, 2008, “The Impending Water Crisis in Central Asia”), Johannes Linn reported on signs of a possible water and energy crisis in Central Asia and called for a concerted response by the international community. Since then representatives of international and bilateral agencies have met three times in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the Central Asia Regional Risk Assessment (CARRA), to review the evolving risk situation and chart an appropriate response. Linn summarized the results of the first meeting in August 2008 (The Compound Water-Energy-Food Crisis Risks in Central Asia: Update on an International Response ). In this commentary, Linn reports on the third CARRA meeting, which took place in Almaty on April 14-15, 2011. Johannes Linn serves as an adviser to the United Nations Development Program, which organized this meeting as well as the previous CARRA events.

On April 15 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, some 120 representatives of over 40 international, regional and bilateral agencies gathered for a two-day conference to review the cumulative risks which Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) face. The risks these countries face arise from the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters, as well as water, energy and food insecurity. The purpose of this third Central Asia Regional Risk Assessment (CARRA) meeting was to take stock of the evolving challenges, to review progress on actions taken nationally, regionally and internationally to prepare for major disasters, to share information about agencies’ planned future activities, and to explore how the international community can best assist the stakeholders in the region in preparing for and responding to disasters when they strike. Memories of recent disasters – Haiti’s, Chile’s and Japan’s earthquakes, Pakistan’s and Australia’s floods, and Central Asia’s own history of major calamities – provided a dramatic backdrop reminding participants of the painful impacts that disasters can have on people.

All major cities and population centers in the region— including the densely populated Fergana Valley, which is home to 7 million people— lie in seismic zones of highest or high risk and have experienced major earthquakes in the past century (see Protection Against Severe Earthquake Risks in Central Asia). In addition, millions of people live in flood-prone zones. Major parts of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are arid lowlands, which rely on scarce water for irrigation and drinking supplied by the two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, whose water flows depend on volatile rain and snowfalls, and on the management of water levels in the many upstream reservoirs. The populations of countries in the uplands of the Central Asia mountain ranges, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, depend on these same waters and reservoirs for winter energy supplies (see Water-Energy Links in Central Asia). In recent years, millions of people in these two countries have been cut off from electricity in the region’s harsh winters. They depend on electricity for heating and lighting of homes, schools, health facilities and for the running of irrigation pumps and industrial equipment. A recent resurgence of poliomyelitis in Tajikistan is attributed in part to the failure to keep vaccines refrigerated during electricity outages. And due to pervasive poverty, about six million people are estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to have suffered from undernourishment in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They are at risk of high food insecurity in the best of times and exposed to external shocks, such as the recent food price rises, interruptions of imports from neighboring countries (Russia and Kazakhstan) and intermittent severe droughts.

The third CARRA conference agenda was organized around four thematic areas: natural disaster risk reduction, water and energy security, food security and social protection. Participants reached the following conclusions:

  • Natural disaster risks (NDRs) are multiple, severe and rising. The highest risk is that of earthquakes, but there are others, such as floods, mudslides, droughts, etc. Climate change is reinforcing non-seismic natural disaster risks.
  • Water and energy security risks represent a “the perfect storm”: chronic water and energy insecurity is especially severe in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Recurrent crises are caused by bad weather and poor water and energy management, with severe impacts on agriculture, industry, food security and poverty. One million inhabitants of Tajikistan face frigid winters without access to electricity, due to power shortages, and rapid increases in electricity and water tariffs fall especially on the poor. Climate change again reinforces the risks in this area.
  • High chronic and transitory food insecurity prevails in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is reinforced by high and rising global food prices, high dependency on volatile imports, national agricultural policy constraints, and limited fiscal capacity and poor governance.
  • Social protection mechanisms can serve as safety nets for chronic and transitory risks to the poor, but in Central Asia these mechanisms are fragmented, poorly targeted, not flexible or poorly developed, and have weak fiscal and institutional capacity. So far social protection mechanisms have not been used effectively or at all to cushion the impact of compound crises on the poor.

In this context, four challenges continue to confront the international community as it tries to assist Central Asian countries address the risks they face:

  • The national risk monitoring capacity has declined since Soviet days; it is limited at the national level and fragmented at a regional level. The same holds true for risk preparedness and response capacity.
  • There has been a limited focus on the national risk management issues by the national leaderships in Central Asian countries and regional organizations have not focused on disaster risks and water, energy and food security.
  • The international response has been fragmented. Crisis response has often been slow, uncoordinated, and with limited impact. Chronic risks are addressed through many uncoordinated initiatives and information on agency activity remains scattered.
  • Humanitarian crisis response has been delinked from the long-term development response.

Despite these continuing challenges, conference participants noted that there has been progress over the last three years in the way Central Asia’s risks are being addressed.

  • There is now much more awareness and interest in this issue among national, regional and international bodies, which was reflected in the high numbers of participants at the third CARRA event compared to the earlier two.
  • Much improved information on the prevalence and severity of different risks in different locations of Central Asia is now available, due in good part to the concerted analytical efforts supported by international agencies.
  • A regional disaster risk center is in an advanced state of preparation with three countries participating (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan) and is supported by the European Union and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
  • The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) has formed a partnership with the World Bank and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and has organized the Central Asia and Caucasus Disaster Risk Management Initiative (CACDRMI). With the support of many other international agencies, this initiative aims to improve the information base on regional disaster risks, to develop disaster financing and risk insurance mechanisms and to invest in hydrometeorological service improvements.
  • A comprehensive energy-water development program is under development by the World Bank. It aims to address a wide range of energy and water management, capacity, investment and policy issues, and is designed to improve the long-term utilization of these key regional natural resources and hence the water and energy security of Central Asians.
  • Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan has developed an interagency and disaster preparedness and response system with international assistance, which can serve as a model of others in the region.
  • As reported at the conference, UNDP has recently completed research, which quantifies the economic and social impact of water and energy tariff increases on the poor and of their limited access to these essential services in the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.

Nevertheless, the conference concluded that much remains to be done since the risks remain very significant for all five countries in Central Asia and for many segments of their populations. Local and national-level action is the basic building block of risk management, but regional action matters since the key risks are regional phenomena – seismic risks, meteorological conditions, climate change, global food and energy prices, and economic shocks. They all have cross-border impacts – earthquakes, floods, water and energy management, environmental events, and refugees. Therefore, regional crisis preparedness and response are essential and regional, cross-border preparedness and response will be needed in the event of a major disaster. And of course, shared learning, training and capacity building are best pursued on a regional basis. Finally, a regional approach to disaster preparedness can help to build trust among neighbors in a region where generally the readiness to cooperate across borders is limited due to intense rivalries over limited natural resources and over regional preeminence.

Going forward, the third CARRA conference identified four major cross-cutting areas for action by the international community: 

  1. Monitor seismic risk and vulnerabilities, hydro-meteorological and hydrological conditions, household water, energy and food indicators (prices, access, etc.), and high vulnerability populations
  2. Prepare for and respond to sudden onset crisis (earthquakes, floods, conflict), to slow onset crisis (drought, food insecurity, economic crisis) and to climate change.
  3. Build links between humanitarian crisis response and development interventions by incorporating development considerations into crisis response; by focusing on transition from crisis response to development assistance; and by incorporating risk management into national/regional development planning.
  4. Build awareness within and outside the region of Central Asia’s risks and vulnerabilities, create the commitment to preparedness and response, and foster readiness to cooperate regionally and the capacity for regional preparedness and response.

In all these areas initiatives under CARRA will involve: the sharing of information about which international and regional agency does what; the identification of gaps in information and capacity; cooperation in research on high vulnerability groups; and exchange of lessons learned and best practice across the region and worldwide.

As a next step, UNDP, FAO and UNICEF staff will finalize the background papers and the action plans for follow-up in each of the four thematic areas covered by the conference (disaster risk reduction, water and energy security, food security and social protection). Concerned agencies have offered to provide inputs and cooperate in the implementation of the action plans. An informal, “light” interagency consultation process will be pursued, with quarterly meetings in Almaty of staff from the agencies represented in Kazakhstan. These meetings are designed to facilitate this consultation effort, supplemented by the annual CARRA conferences. UNDP will also explore putting the CARRA initiative under the umbrella of one of the existing regional institutions. This would facilitate outreach to and engagement by the national governments of the region. They clearly must have a voice in the discussions of risks and challenges affecting their countries and they are indispensable partners together with other national stakeholders in implementing agreed measures on a national or region-wide basis.