The states of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are facing severe environmental challenges, which are being further exacerbated by climate change. These issues are complex, intertwined, and often rooted in the countries’ common Soviet legacy.
On December 2, Central Asian states met for the High-Level Central Asian Dialogue on Climate Change and Resilience in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Government representatives from all the Central Asian countries, together with the diplomatic community and international organisations, civil society and representatives of the private sector, met to establish a multilateral dialogue and “develop a long-term vision for building resilience against climate change and natural disasters by taking holistic climate actions together.” It was a rare multilateral meeting among the regional states, and it came at an urgent time.
The list of issues includes how to battle Central Asia’s climate crisis and its inherited ecological disasters: intense air pollution, deforestation, nuclear contamination and the ecological disaster that is the disappearing Aral Sea. According to data from the Swiss air quality technology company IQAir, Central Asian cities rank among the worst in the world in terms of air pollution. Research shows that the main source of air pollution is the old Soviet-era coal-fired power stations that heat cities during the harsh winters. Deforestation is another serious problem — IUCN, a global union of government and civil society organisations concluded that a cause of deforestation in Central Asia was the economic decline in the 1990s, which led people to rely more heavily on crops and livestock, thus leading them to cut down local forests.
Nuclear contamination is another factor that continues to threaten the lives of locals in the region. In Kazakhstan, the Semipalatinsk Polygon was a former Soviet nuclear test site located in north-eastern Kazakhstan. According to Kazakhstani scientists, the population near Semipalatinsk and in the adjacent regions still suffer from genetic problems and cancers, even though the test site has been closed for over 30 years. In Kyrgyzstan, uranium mining also causes serious harm to the health of residents of the nearby villages. And finally, on this sober list, the disappearance of the Aral Sea is perhaps the most well-known environmental catastrophe in the region: intense irrigation for cotton production in the Soviet era drained what was once one of the world’s largest inland seas. A depressing publication from NASA documents the shocking decline of the water levels, even in recent years.
An effective and joint response risks being hampered by intrinsic problems in the wider region, including autocratic governments, corruption, human rights violations and obstructions of fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly, as well as gender inequality. To date, Central Asian states’ track record of hampering civil society and activists does not promote optimism. IPHR monitoring updates for the CIVICUS Monitor track the situation for civic freedoms and rank Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as “closed,” Kazakhstan and Tajikistan as “repressed” (Kazakhstan was downgraded after the violence in January) and Kyrgyzstan as “obstructed.” Freedom House also ranks all the Central Asian countries as “unfree,” except for Kyrgyzstan, which is “partly free.” In other words, civil society activists in Central Asia are under constant pressure, and NGOs and activists are rarely able to effectively work on sensitive cases related to the environment. This means that civil society — including the civil society groups working on environmental problems and climate change — often faces severe difficulties in their working conditions.
In a 2022 report written for IPHR, Professor Sebastien Peyrouse at George Washington University explored how the lack of safe civil society space in which to raise and address environmental problems significantly hinders the effectiveness of measures to mitigate climate change and protect the environment.
Central Asia states, like other authoritarian countries, stand out for their centralised, top-down management of environmental policy, which undermines government accountability and hinders the civil society engagement essential to raising environmental consciousness and proposing approaches to environmental issues. Authoritarian obstruction of CSOs’ independent environmental research, as well as the serious lack of dialogue between civil society and political authorities, constitutes a serious threat to the environmental future of the region and, consequently, the economic and social futures of its population.
And climate change is a looming threat for Central Asia. Melting glaciers, increased heavy rainfall triggering deadly mudslides, flood risks and irreparable damage in the ecosystems across the region are occurring as temperatures rise. The Asian Development Bank estimates the wider regional loss of glaciers to be 30 percent over the last 50–60 years. Kazakhstan, for instance, has lost a shocking 45 percent of its mountain glaciers in the last 60 years. In Kyrgyzstan, the glacial loss is estimated at 16 percent over the last 70 years, and in Tajikistan, the glaciers are also decreasing. Tajikistani scientists attribute this to a 15 percent temperature increase within the last 70 years. Mudslides are a consequence of glacial loss but are also triggered by precipitation changes related to climate change, and the mountainous terrain in large parts of Central Asia exacerbates this risk. These events inevitably lead to damage to the local biodiversity.
Potential government intervention?
These issues are, unfortunately, not systematically addressed by the Central Asian governments today. In IPHR’s 2022 report on the environment, Sebastien Peyrouse found that the governments in Central Asia often lack the political will to act on climate and the environment and such efforts as there are, are often part of state PR strategies. Peyrouse found that although all the Central Asian governments have implemented legislation and strategies to protect the environment and tackle climate change, they have been less successful at integrating these strategies into economic policy. The Central Asian states have pledged to reduce their production of greenhouse gases as part of the Paris Agreement. Looking out at the dense, brown smog covering Almaty these days, this is something that we in Central Asia await with impatience.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) believes that Central Asia has the potential to become a game-changer in relation to the world’s effort against global warming:
This region has a significant potential to make sizable contributions to global efforts to keep temperature rises below two degrees Celsius by reducing the output of greenhouse gases, modernizing production on farms, building climate-smart cities and infrastructure, protecting vulnerable ecosystems, and creating the transformational shift needed to move from a production-based economy that’s highly dependent on natural resources to a services-based economy that places greater value on natural resource protection and economic sustainability.
But this will not happen until governments in the Central Asian countries allow civil society and activists to be heard when discussing these issues.
An example of how it can be done was seen in Kazakhstan a few years ago. The beautiful area of Kok Zhailau (“Green Pasture” in Kazakh) in the mountains near the city of Almaty, was due to be sold off from the protected national park, and information surfaced that a ski resort was to be built in this spot as part of a multi-million-dollar project linked to one of Kazakhstan’s richest men, Serzhan Zhumashov, who was also on the Almaty City Council. The involvement of big money and a wealthy local politician made for a controversial case, and protesting activists were periodically arrested. Nevertheless, prominent local activists, artists, writers and NGOs organised protests and gathered over 30,000 signatures against the project. In 2019, following an eight-year battle, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev prohibited the construction of the resort in Kok Zhailau.
Unfortunately, such examples of environmental activists being heard are rare in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the local media NGO Kloop has attempted to resolve the problem of access to clean water in villages and remote regions. According to Kloop, despite millions in international funds having been poured into Kyrgyzstan to improve access to water, only 123 villages got access to safe drinking water over the last two years, leaving 300 villages without any access to drinking water at all. In its new project, Kloop helps the people in rural communities track water problems and hold local officials accountable for ensuring clean and safe drinking water in rural communities. Unfortunately, Kloop — along with other independent media in Kyrgyzstan — is now under pressure for their journalistic activities, meaning that their community work for water is also under threat.
Sebastien Peyrouse concluded in IPHR’s 2022 report on the climate:
The environmental situation will not improve without serious action by political authorities in the region. Such action should include allowing environmental CSOs, academics, and experts to freely conduct research, including on sensitive issues. Experts from institutes, think tanks and universities involved in the environmental sector must be able to work without pressure or fear of retaliations.
Civil society is the cornerstone of any healthy state. Therefore, we hope that Central Asian states will allow local civil society to be heard on par with state officials, other experts and the international community, and be included in the work towards building a region more resilient to climate change.
Column by Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova, Central Asia consultant with International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).