The Compound Water-Energy-Food Crisis Risks in Central Asia: Update on an International Response

Editor’s Note: In his opinion piece posted on June 12, 2008 (read “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 starting with an expert assessment of the Central Asian water and energy situation and its potential impacts. On July 21-22, 2008 representatives of some 15 international and bilateral agencies met in Almaty, Kazakhstan to review the situation and plan for an appropriate response. In this editorial, Johannes reports on new information available, on the outcome of the Almaty event and on the next steps forward.

Over 40 representatives of international organizations, including United Nations agencies and international financial institutions, and of bilateral donor agencies, including Russia, met in Almaty at the invitation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on July 21-22, 2008. They reviewed available evidence of the current water, energy and food situation in Central Asia and agreed on a joint response to the risk of what is commonly now referred to as a potential “compound crisis of water, energy and food security facing the region.”

At the Almaty meeting, the World Bank reported on the findings of a preliminary situation analysis that it prepared in July 2008 based on readily available information from public sources [1] and regional institutions. Key findings of this preliminary analysis, which focused mostly on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is summarized here with permission from the World Bank, are as follows:

  • Precipitation: Tajikistan, west and south Kyrgyzstan and most of Afghanistan received up to 50% less than average precipitation between September 2007 and July 2008; east Kyrgyzstan received around 25% more than average, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan received at least that much or more (above a low average precipitation in these two countries).
  • Snow cover: Judging from satellite images, regional snow cover in June 2008 were slightly lower than in June 2006.
  • Temperatures: Between April and July 2008, temperatures were significantly higher than average in much of the region, including Afghanistan, but less so in early July.
  • River flows: For Amu Darya River, flows in the main upper tributaries were generally somewhat higher than average, in spite of lower than average rainfall in the upper Amu Darya catchment, so probably due to increased snow and glacier melt as a result of high temperatures; down-stream Amu Darya River flow was lower than average, but rising towards average flow levels in July 2008. For Syr Darya River, average flows downstream from Toktogul Reservoir were substantially less in 2008 than average, possibly because of low water releases from Toktogul Reservoir.
  • Reservoir levels: The principal reservoir on Amu Darya in Tajikistan, Nurek, was much below average levels for much of 2008, but its level was rapidly rising in June and July 2008; it is expected to reach its capacity in full by September. Latest data on the principal reservoir on Syr Darya, Toktogul, in July show that the reservoir level is significantly below the 20-year minimum and is not expected to reach normal capacity this year; reservoirs below Toktogul appear at or above full capacity.
  • Vegetation: Vegetation indices (an indicator for crop water stress in rain-fed areas) for Central Asia are somewhat below average overall for Central Asia, but better in some areas (especially in Uzbekistan).

Based on these observations, the current assessment is that the prospects for water availability and crop production in the irrigated areas of Amu Darya basin are likely to be close to normal this year, although rain fed agriculture and livestock in Tajikistan and west Kyrgyzstan may suffer drought conditions. Water availability in the Syr Darya basin downstream of Toktogul could be significantly less than normal this year. Prospects for energy availability in the coming winter could be somewhat better in Tajikistan in 2008/9 compared to the disastrous last winter. In Kyrgyzstan, the energy outlook is serious for the coming winter.

The World Bank also highlighted steps which the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could take to minimize the risk of water and energy related problems: carefully managed release of water this summer, early rationing of power use and imports of power from neighbors this fall, securing fuel and power import supplies for winter use and power tariff increases to help limit demand and generate the financial means to pay for imports.

Overall, the Almaty meeting concluded that while there was at this point no apparent region-wide threat of drought conditions, a combination of factors— chronic water and energy shortages in parts of Central Asia combined with the area-specific drought conditions and hence threats to agricultural production in rain-fed parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (and possibly in the areas of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan irrigated with waters from the Syr Darya), continuing energy shortages in Tajikistan and Kyrgyz, and generally rising energy and food prices—could have serious economic and social consequences for large parts of Central Asia, and especially in the poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Therefore the participants of the Almaty meeting agreed to commission a quick but comprehensive assessment of water, energy and food security risks in Central Asia under the auspices of UNDP. The terms of references for this assessment have now been issued and applications by experts have been invited (read the Terms of Reference). The assessment is to take stock of the water, energy and food situation and outlook in the region and consider possible responses by Central Asian governments and by the international community. A report is to be prepared by mid-October for presentation at a possible follow-up meeting. In the meantime, UNDP will lead consultations with the concerned Central Asian governments to ensure that their engagement is assured and country-specific information and concerns are fully considered.

In sum, the response of the international community to an apparent threat of a compound crisis of water, energy and food security in Central Asia has been swift. It promises a much-enhanced readiness of the governments of the region and of their international partners to respond with appropriate policies and interventions to minimize the hardships that will likely be experienced by significant segments of the region’s population in the coming months. It is also to be hoped, and recommended, that the comprehensive information that has now been compiled as a special effort will be routinely collected and disseminated in the future so as to allow all concerned national and international agencies to be prepared for any pending disaster risks. With the impact of global warming negatively affecting the long-term water, energy and food prospects of the region, this will become an important element of regional disaster preparedness in Central Asia. In addition, of course, it is also critical that other long-term water and energy issues be addressed, including expansion of hydro-power capacity and much greater efforts to use the region’s limited and energy resources of the region more efficiently than is currently the case. (Read Water-Energy Links in Central Asia)

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