Kazakhstan drought could be a harbinger of doom for Central Asia

Kazakhstan drought could be a harbinger of doom for Central Asia
Kazakhstan drought could be a harbinger of doom for Central Asia

In a world ravaged by a pandemic, some stories are left behind the scenes. One that probably didn't make headlines for obvious reasons is the Kazakh government's new six-month ban on livestock feed exports, insisting that produce be left at home.

The reason for this intervention, which took place after the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture and against the wishes of some farmers and exporters, is the severe drought in much of the west of the country. After a dry winter, it has lasted for several months and has already caused enormous damage to pastures, livestock that depend on them, and the population, which, in turn, needs livestock.

Attributing a particular event directly to climate change can be difficult. But this is, frankly, an academic problem, since there is no doubt that Kazakhstan has already suffered and will suffer even more from global climate change. This is reflected in numerous studies and recognized by many international organizations, from UNDP to WHO.

Of course, Kazakhstan is not alone. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, for example, in some areas, farmers face the problem of crop loss due to harsh conditions. There, agricultural workers began to demand that the government store not fodder at home, but something even more necessary - water. Until now, such demands have been rebuffed by the government. If Kyrgyzstan cuts off the export of water to other countries, Kazakhstan will suffer greatly. In general, all of Central Asia is currently under intense pressure not only from the effects of the Covid pandemic, but also from the unusual heat and water shortages.

But Central Asia is suffering not only together (although, of course, with great regional differences); in water matters, it can also survive only if it acts as a whole. Although the region consists of five sovereign states with their own policies and cultures, as well as significant differences in their post-Soviet development, it essentially has only one water system.

For example, Kyrgyzstan, which is at odds with Kazakhstan over water supplies, will be particularly challenging as it will be the case when one of the upstream Central Asian states (the second is Tajikistan) turns off the tap for one of the downstream states. downstream (the other two are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).

To understand why this would be a very bad precedent, think of Central Asia as a cluster of mountains with lots of plains (at least relatively). The Amu and Syr Darya rivers are the key links between the mountains and plains. Basically, two countries upstream have mountains and the other three have plains. An estimated 80 percent of the region's water resources come from the mountains. Conversely, downstream countries are ultimately about 90 percent dependent on mountains outside of their borders.

As one study says, the mountain ranges of Central Asia are, in fact, its water towers. Despite the obvious need for transboundary cooperation, in general, according to experts, Central Asia has not yet found a way to a new, post-Soviet, integrated and long-term system of managing its water needs and resources, despite ongoing efforts.

But these attempts are vital.After all, if and when water becomes scarce, the problems of unequal access will inevitably worsen. When this happens, violence is near. In fact, in Central Asia, water has already led to some deadly conflicts, albeit relatively minor ones. For example, in the Fergana Valley, where the problem is compounded by ethnic diversity and difficult post-Soviet borders, hundreds of people have already died during the post-Soviet period. Recently, a violent clash between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has been attributed to a conflict over a water body.

Central Asia, of course, is of great importance, no matter how you look at it. The region, larger than India, and now home to about 75 million people, has historically been an important part of the old Silk Road system. In the post-Soviet period, its development proceeded in different ways: in some countries, there was a general growth, in others - not very much. In general, the region is increasingly integrating into the global economy, often through the export of raw materials and energy.

And less than ten years ago, in 2013, China announced the start of the Belt and Road (BRI) part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BCP) in Kazakhstan, demonstrating the key role of Central Asia in this new transcontinental trade scheme. and, in fact, integration. Several of the six proposed major BRI "corridors" depend on the Central Asian connection.

But even disregarding such aspects, we can see Central Asia as a particularly striking example of the problems facing the world as a whole - a kind of microcosm, if you will.

What makes the water problems of the post-Soviet region so urgent is, in fact, two things: one is the legacy of the past, the other points to a future that has already begun. The past in question refers to the USSR, and the future is global.

On the water front, the Soviet Union left behind a legacy of one-sided and ecologically wasteful economic development in Central Asia. The most striking example is probably the anthropogenic drying up of the Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world after World War II, as a result of unsustainable escalation of irrigation.

The Soviets also had their own system of managing, for better or worse, water in the region between the five Soviet republics. The infrastructure they built for this purpose still exists - for example, the canal system, which is now at risk of drying up in Kyrgyzstan.

However, it is wrong to believe that the Soviet way of mistreating the only planet we have was unique. Perhaps he was particularly rude and harsh, and we might be tempted to blame communism for everything. But our descendants, looking back to, say, 2500, will be as perplexed by our ideological obsessions as most of us are now when we think of the religious wars in Europe of a similar age.

Kazakhstan may seem distant to many, but it can also be a harbinger of things to come - or rather, events that have almost overtaken us.

Tariq Cyril Amar is a historian at Koç University in Istanbul with a focus on Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, World War II history, cultural Cold War and the politics of memory.

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