Water Stress in the Naryn River Basin

Around the world, meltwater from snow and glaciers has provided surrounding communities with water for irrigation and hydropower, but climate change is altering the timing and volume of the annual water flow cycle. This issue is pressing in eastern Kyrgyzstan, where the glaciers and snowpack of the Tien Shan Mountains form the headwaters of the Naryn River, which flows westward across Kyrgyzstan before crossing the border into Uzbekistan. A recent study in the journal Water by Alice F. Hill et al. analyzed water chemistry from the Naryn River Basin to find changes in the contribution of mountain headwaters to river discharges that flow downstream to agricultural areas.

Agriculture accounts for 29 percent of the country’s GDP (2010 figures) and more than half of its labor force. The study’s aim was to capture key hydrologic transitions over the diverse domain by using a hydro-chemical mixing model, known as End Member Mixing Analysis, to distill multi-variate water chemistry data from samples, in order to quantify water contributions from river discharge to agricultural areas serving larger populations. By using a remotely sensed product to quantify the rain, seasonal snow, and glacial melt inputs, the study found that when glacial ice mass decreases, it contributes less to river water supplies.

The Naryn River crosses three regions of the Kyrgyz Republic (Source: Robert Harding/Creative Commons).

Government Policies and Water Management

These trans-boundary water sources have been a topic of relations between the Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with water resource management poorly coordinated between the five republics. Recently, new infrastructure, such as dams and diversions, have been developed, creating problems for neighbors that live downstream.

“The Kyrgyzstan government insists increased precipitation and snowmelt are to blame for natural hazards and fatalities. Scientists have yet to determine the cause of such weather anomalies in Southern Tian Shan,” said Ryskeldi Satke, a Kyrgyz journalist, in an interview with GlacierHub. “On the other hand, it was known that climate change worries experts and researchers over its impact on snow melt in the Tian Shan and Pamirs. Subsequently, more ground research and cooperation would be needed to explain weather patterns in the region.”

Kyrgyzstan has over 8,000 glaciers, accounting for 4.2 percent of the country’s territory. The consumption of irrigation water for agriculture represents 94 percent of total water use, while only three percent is allocated to households and industries. Livelihoods depend on the river flow from these glaciers, which have been shrinking since the 1930s, according to research. In order to better understand the implication of the infrastructure developments, Hill and her colleagues conducted a survey in both upstream and downstream communities. They asked questions relating to changes in water availability for irrigation, food, and recreation, as well as changes in household activities, estimated income, and income structure over the last 15 years.

Community Survey

Young men clearing an irrigation canal in Osh province, Kyrgyzstan (Source: USAID/Creative Commons).

The researchers conducted the survey across a 440 km stretch of the Naryn River to better understand the challenges that the people of the Naryn basin face in obtaining adequate water supplies. All communities reported an overall decrease in water access over the last 15 years. Therefore, some communities installed groundwater wells, mainly in higher portions of the basin.

Since the 1960s, the Toktogul district, for example, has been limited by low water availability, scarcity in lands and funds, and a lack of trust in the government. Unfortunately, farmers were not given the proper resources or equipment to build an irrigation or water distribution system, according to the study. There was a lack of government support for farmers who were unable to deal with the harsh conditions on their land, the researchers noted. Therefore, yields began to decrease and the irrigation systems deteriorated. This led the farmers and surrounding neighbors to believe that there has not been any positive socio-economic change within their communities.

According to the survey, downstream communities are more eager to migrate to other countries in search of a higher income, while upstream communities remain more optimistic of finding solutions to the water shortage. In an interview with GlacierHub, Cholpon Minbaeva, one of the co-authors of the study, stated, “The scope of the resettlement in the Toktogul reservoir was something that I didn’t anticipate. Almost all villages near the reservoir were resettled because of the reservoir construction.”

With climate change altering river discharge and increasing the likelihood of droughts, heat waves, and crop losses, the agricultural communities in the Naryn basin will continue to be significantly affected. Due to historic failed water management, water access in the region has been unreliable. To mitigate water stress, local, regional, and national government management programs need to improve the water resource infrastructure and delivery. More effective information management systems could also contribute to better management of the river basin’s water resources, including better control of water returned from irrigation systems to the river.