Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

The Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: llee Wu/Flickr).

Mountain societies in low-income developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with global warming threatening livelihoods. A new study and conference paper from “Life in Kyrgyzstan” investigates the adaptive capacities of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change and improve their coping strategies under weather extremes.

Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Mountain societies around the world differ with respect to challenges to development and ability to overcome these challenges. Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, author of the study and director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, explained to GlacierHub, “Some mountain societies have been doing remarkably well, for example the Sherpas of Nepal who were successful traders even before the first ascent of Mt. Everest started the rush of tourists into their region, which continues until today.” However, this does not apply to mountain societies in general. “The main challenges to development are remoteness, harsh terrain, high risk of mountain-specific natural disasters and scarce resources,” Schmidt-Vogt said.

The vulnerability of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains is impacted by their often remote locations, outdated infrastructure and poor access. The need is high for these communities to develop effective strategies and adaptation measures to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change; however, this is a complex task. The new study states that it is essential to strengthen research to address climate change challenges in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain regions to understand the vulnerability of these mountain societies and assist them in developing adaptation strategies.

Mountainous areas in Central Asia (Source: “Climate Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity of Mountain Societies in Central Asia“).

“Challenges to development in this peripheral region have been intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline in infrastructure and services,” Schmidt-Vogt explained to GlacierHub. The difficult task of development will be further intensified by effects of climate change, including glacier retreat, which will increase frequency of landslides and rockfalls as well as increase the aridity of an already arid climate.

Glaciers, Complexities, and Adaptation

It is often a complicated task to predict climatic trends in mountainous areas because of the lack of information on water systems and the interactions between the arrangement of topography, water infrastructure and the atmosphere. The sensitivity of glaciers to climate variability, as well as to climate change, adds another level of complexity.

The Tien Shan mountains form a mountain range of about 2,800 km, making it one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan. Glaciers in the Tien Shan area like elsewhere are primarily controlled by temperature, mostly by rising summer temperatures. Increased summer temperatures cause glaciers to melt, while decreased snowfall further impacts glacier retreat. Amanda Wooden, professor of environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University, explained to GlacierHub, “The Central Asian region is glacier rather than precipitation dependent. Monitoring of glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain ranges has demonstrated considerable and steady ice mass loss since the 1970s, with variation by range location, size, and elevation.”

Glacier retreat in mountainous Central Asia may increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, leaving local populations vulnerable. The most important long-term effect of glacier retreat is on the hydrology of the larger region, including nearby lowland areas. Meltwater from glaciers is an important source of irrigation water in the dry summer months. The study suggests interventions for improving climate adaptation that include glacier monitoring through direct measurements, remote sensing, and modeling.

Tien Shan Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: Ian/Flickr).

Schmidt-Vogt told GlacierHub, “Increased melting of glaciers may in the short term increase the amount of water available for irrigation, but will in the long run lead to a decrease in the amount of available water. Increased melting of glaciers can in extreme cases lead to flooding and also contribute to the hazard of mudflows.”

The climate change processes in highland areas of Central Asia were also found to be more complex than initially anticipated. The authors explained, “Geophysical, historical and institutional factors make climatic predictions and the introduction of adaptation measures a challenging task requiring a thorough and in-depth analysis. Particularly at the local level where adaptation measures rely critically on precise information, the currently available climate prediction models are afflicted with uncertainties that often exceed the predicted magnitudes of change.”

Vulnerability and the Need for Improvement

Challenges to development remain a serious issue for the states in Central Asia after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long-term monitoring of glaciers was discontinued, and research infrastructure has not been maintained since then. Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, explained to GlacierHub, “These countries are still in political and economic transition which is impacting decision-making process in the regional governments. Let alone intra-regional political differences between the states regarding water resources and border. This is primarily related to the Ferghana Valley triangle where three states, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share common challenges and complex concerns.”

Pamir Highlands, Bulunkul Village, Central Asia (Source: Ronan Shenhav/Flickr).

The study highlights several major areas where more action is needed. These areas include governance, economic, education, knowledge sharing, infrastructure caps and data gaps. Stefanos Xenarios, author of the study and a senior researcher at University Central Asia, told GlacierHub, “The adaptation strategies to improve the vulnerability status of mountain societies shall be carefully designed based on sound scientific background and policy-evidence results in close engagement with local communities.”

The study shows the importance of education and capacity building by noting that the public and some government officials are not yet fully aware of climate change, climate-related disasters, and potential adaptation measures. Therefore, there is a need for awareness programs at various levels, as well as an integration of climate change education to the national curriculum.

Beyond the areas highlighted by the study, more can also be done to cover vulnerability of mountain societies in the foreign and regional media. “In my opinion, the Central Asian media including state-controlled news organizations have to improve their record on the subject of climate change to effectively inform regional population of about 70 million,” Satke said. “Similarly, international news outlets could include more coverage of climate change impact on glaciers in Tian Shan and Pamir mountains in Central Asia.” As a start, Central Asian media outlets could cooperate with counterparts in the Himalayan region where ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) has been leading the front on climate change. Cooperation would work well for everyone, Satke suggested.

The degree of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change determines the degree of vulnerability of a community. The study is intended to draw attention to a region that is little understood in terms of climate change and its effects on mountain societies. “The current study is aspired to designate the major research field areas where climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity initiatives should concentrate for the livelihoods improvement of mountain societies in Central Asia,” the authors note.

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