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Will climate change exacerbate water stress in Central Asia?

Abstract

Millions of people in the geopolitically important region of Central Asia depend on water from snow- and glacier-melt driven international rivers, most of all the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. The riparian countries of these rivers have experienced recurring water allocation conflicts ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. Will climate change exacerbate water stress and thus conflicts? We have developed a coupled climate, land-ice and rainfall-runoff model for the Syr Darya to quantify impacts and show that climatic changes are likely to have consequences on runoff seasonality due to earlier snow-melt. This will increase water stress in unregulated catchments because less water will be available for irrigation in the summer months. Threats from geohazards, above all glacier lake outbursts, are likely to increase as well. The area at highest risk is the densely populated, agriculturally productive, and politically unstable Fergana Valley. Targeted infrastructural developments will be required in the region. If the current mismanagement of water and energy resources can be replaced with more effective resource allocation mechanisms through the strengthening of transboundary institutions, Central Asia will be able to successfully address these future climate-related challenges.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for details on the climate and precipitation characteristics in the different Central Asian regions.

  2. 2.

    We have also analyzed the 0.5-degree gridded temperature data from the CRU TS2p1 dataset (available at: http://iridl.ldeo.columbia.edu/SOURCES/.UEA/.CRU/.TS2p1/) which exhibits broadly similar trends to those seen at the six stations.

  3. 3.

    A recent Oxfam report on Central Asia, for instance, argues that “retreating glaciers and more extreme weather could dangerously erode food security, livelihoods and even regional stability in 2050” (Swarup 2010).

  4. 4.

    This additional contribution to runoff will however only be available over a strictly limited time until land-ice and snow storage are depleted.

  5. 5.

    In view of future GHG emissions projected by the IPPC, the IEA, and other institutions, the A2 temperature trend may well become reality over the next decades.

  6. 6.

    The development and calibration of the rainfall-runoff model for the Syr Darya is described in detail in Pereira-Cardenal et al. (2011).

  7. 7.

    A number of challenges in extracting regional information and trends from IPCC AR4 GCMs have been noted and are discussed elsewhere (Sellars et al., Simulating climate variability and change in Central Asia using a coupled NHMM-AR1 model, in preparation).

  8. 8.

    With 19.5 km3 total capacity, the Toktogul reservoir is the largest storage facility in the Syr Darya basin. Together with four smaller downstream reservoirs, the facilities have a combined hydropower generation capacity of 2,870 MW (The World Bank 2004).

  9. 9.

    To estimate population growth at the subcatchment level we used a logistic growth model to extrapolate gridded population figures in 2010 (CIESIN 2010) and national growth rates as reported by the United Nations (2007).

  10. 10.

    This hazards map can guide initial monitoring efforts towards the subcatchments which show the largest climate sensitivity of land ice towards climatic changes. However, we would like to emphasize that for this assessment, a linear dynamic model was used. Whereas the linearity assumption of land ice sensitivity towards climate is certainly a good first-order approximation for small-scale volumetric fluctuations, it is problematic in the case of large-scale changes. Hence, solely relying on such model-based output is certainly not the most advisable strategy for the identification of best mitigation strategies in relation to these distributed hazards. Rather, a detailed analysis should utilize remotely sensed data, combined with in-situ observations, to ultimately produce more reliable and detailed hazard maps.

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Acknowledgements

Support from the CORC-ARCHES program at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS) and the International Research School of Water Resources (FIVA) in Copenhagen is acknowledged. We would specifically like to thank Peter Schlosser for facilitating CORC-ARCHES funding. Andrew W. Robertson’s work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through a Cooperative Agreement with Columbia University. The Open Society Institute is acknowledged for providing partial funding of a research trip to Central Asia. We thank DHI and Roar Askær Jensen for providing free access to the MIKE software package. We acknowledge the modeling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling (WGCM) for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model dataset. Support of this dataset is provided by the Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy.

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Correspondence to Tobias Siegfried.

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Siegfried, T., Bernauer, T., Guiennet, R. et al. Will climate change exacerbate water stress in Central Asia?. Climatic Change 112, 881–899 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0253-z

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Keywords

  • Climate Sensitivity
  • Shuttle Radar Topography Mission
  • Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission
  • Global Circulation Model
  • Irrigation Water Demand