New Glaciological Center in Kazakhstan to Tackle Glacier Retreat in the Region

In the following months, Kazakhstan will start the implementation of a Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center. The center was established after the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ratified an agreement last March between his country and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Central Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be located in Almaty, the largest city in the country, and has the objective to both contribute to the research of glaciology and improve the scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the water cycle in the region. As stated by UNESCO, the center will improve coordination of research projects and information sharing between regional institutions currently working on glaciers. Moreover, it will aim to increase the capacities of Central Asian specialists in the field of glaciology.

Almaty, Kazakhstan (Source: Caroline_china/Flickr).

Christian Hergarten, a current research scientist at the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, told GlacierHub that he and his colleagues believe the regional research center will create local and regional ownership in terms of environmental data and information generation for Central Asia. “This should help to move glaciers higher on national agendas and render the effects of global warming on glaciers, water flow and storage a political priority in the area,” Hergarten said.

For Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher focused on Central Asia, countries must have more research hubs outside of the one in Kazakhstan for the sake of the whole region. “In my opinion, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan should have scientific collaboration regarding glaciers and water resources. It is a good step for Kazakhstan to develop research capacity and support scientific exploration in the field of glaciology,” he told GlacierHub.

Due to the relative aridity of the region, glacier meltwater is a key water resource for these countries, with glaciers relevant to the future development of the region. Major Central Asian rivers such as the Syr Darya and Amu Darya provide for the livelihoods of the people living in this semiarid region, for example, mostly through hydropower generation and irrigation agriculture. Hergarten added, “Many rivers in Central Asia have their sources in the high mountains where snow and glacier melt contribute substantially to runoff generation— between 10 and 30 percent.”

As stated in the draft proposal of the establishment of the center, thawed snow and glacial water in Central Asia is formed in high-mountainous areas. The zone of runoff formation in these locations determines the hydrological regime and provides water resources to the densely populated region. Unfortunately, these territories are not adequately monitored. This situation is responsible for inadequate information on glacier mass dynamics, among other deficiencies. The lack of factual information on processes and natural phenomena at high altitudes in cold mountain regions forces scientists to use secondary data and indirect methods to make assumptions when constructing forecast models. This explains the lack of consensus among scientists on the impact of climate change on the region’s water resources in general and glaciers in particular.

Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. Source: David McCarthy / Flickr

Nazif Shahrani, professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University, told GlacierHub that it is “critical and necessary” to monitor the global impact of changing ecological conditions and the Aral Sea’s virtual disappearance in the region, especially on the remaining glacier fields in the area. Moreover, the initiative by Kazakhstan, one of the richest and more populous nations in the region, is most welcome and will be beneficial, especially if it includes monitoring the glacier field not just within the boundaries of Kazakhstan but also in the other republics with glaciers, Shahrani noted. “The future viability of all five republics of former Central Asia and Afghanistan will depend on waters from the glaciers and the mountains of this region,” he said.

The dependence of Central Asian countries on mountain resources varies across Central Asia. While countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan rely heavily and immediately on mountain resources, the importance of mountain resources is less pronounced for Kazakhstan with its vast steppes and grasslands, according to Hergarten. “The Kyrgyz, Tajik and partly also the Uzbek economies depend critically on water originating from Central Asian mountain ranges for agricultural production, benefitting large parts of the population. But the economies also depend on mineral resources originating from mountains,” he said.

A child from Almaty (Source: Marusia/Flickr).

The negotiation and development of the agreement dates back to 2006 when Central Asian countries assessed the state of glaciers and water resources of the region during a workshop organized by UNESCO in Kazakhstan. During the meeting, the participants acknowledged the need for a regional center on glacier research. Six years later, an agreement on the establishment of the regional research center was signed in Astana, the capital of the country, during the official visit of the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. The Central-Asian Regional Glaciological Center will be implemented under the auspices of UNESCO as a category 2 organization, which indicates that the center is not legally part of the international organization. However, it is associated with it through an agreement between UNESCO and the country that will host the center.

“Kazakhstan is a prominent member of the international community and such status gives the Kazakh government more opportunities to implement or initiate regional cooperation based on the scientific data and research from the hub in Almaty. Regardless of the outcome, the research center is a good and positive sign for the region. Most likely, it will create more room and opportunities for the regional scientists to congregate and exchange scientific data on glaciers and water resources,” Satke concluded.

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