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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Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch
Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan.

The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve.

Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.)

Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months.

Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report
Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report

Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.)

Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe.

Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.

In Conflict

In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation.

The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a third. The agreement called for further audits of the mine’s operations, and for the government to continue pursuing claims against Centerra worth some $471 million for economic and environmental damages. But the Kyrgyz government is now threatening to expropriate the mine unless that stake can be raised to at least two thirds. In a Dec. 1 television interview, Krygyz President Atambayev said that nationalization of the mine would be the only option if a deal with the Canadian company can’t be reached by December, although some investors think nationalization is unlikely.

In April, a new glacier law was passed by the Kyrgyz parliament that would have made it impossible for Kumtor to continue operating, but it required the signature of the president. An online search does not turn up any record of the president having signed it. A change to the water code proposed by the government in June may serve as a work around: it would allow companies that make a significant contribution to the economy to search, explore and exploit deposits in glacier areas. In the meantime, also in June, the government gave the mine the necessary permits for its 2014 mine plan after the company threatened to shut the mine down if it did not receive them.

Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, given the risks to regional water supplies, approval of the mine’s operations by the Kyrgyz government may violate a water resources treaty between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “The signatories committed not to allow any operations in their respective territories that would harm the interests of the other states parties, that would inflict damage on them and lead to the contamination of their water resources,” the authors write.

Mistrust of Centerra has been simmering since 1998, when a company delivery truck carrying over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide overturned, releasing its contents into the Barskaun River, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul. Some local and international media organizations claimed the incident poisoned hundreds of people and caused several deaths, but an independent group of experts said there was no major environmental impact. Eventually, around $4 million USD was paid in compensation, though different media outlets report different figures. Bankwatch claims that came to about $25 per person.

William Colgan, a researcher studying glacier-climate interactions at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, discussed some of the challenges of mining deposits that sit under glaciers, including Kumtor, in a recent post on his Glacier Bytes website.

 

 

 

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