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Central Asia: U.S. Conference Begins On Region's Environmental Problems

A two-day international conference examining environmental problems and climate change in Central Asia begins today in the United States. RFE/RL looks at the main topics under discussion, such as desertification around the Aral Sea and global warming.

Prague, 21 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rising temperatures, dying lakes, melting glaciers: Are Central Asia's environmental problems likely to get worse -- and what can be done to lessen their impact on human life?

Experts from around the region will be asking these questions and others when they gather today in Michigan for a two-day conference titled "Human Dimensions of Climate and Environmental Change in Central Asia."
"Good news for this region is that many countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are looking for diversification of their agriculture, stated reduction of cotton production and increase of production of other agricultural crops that would probably require less water."

Elena Lioubimtseva is organizer of the event, sponsored by Grand Valley State University in the city of Grand Rapids. She spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

"We're very much interested in all processes related to climate and environmental change that affect human society -- such topics as water resources, land use, climate change, environmental degradation. We have several presentations on desertification control. Of course, the Aral Sea is really in the center of attention. Several speakers will also speak about carbon dioxide emissions in the region and the implications of global warming for Central Asia," Lioubimtseva said.

Central Asia, home to the rapidly evaporating Aral Sea, faces some of the world's biggest environmental challenges, many of them due to a legacy of Soviet-era agricultural practices. These problems are only expected to become tougher as temperatures rise in the future as part of a process known as global warming.

Global warming is caused by gases such as carbon dioxide -- a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels -- trapping the earth's heat in the atmosphere and producing the so-called "greenhouse effect."

Bekmurod Mahmadaliev is head of Tajikistan's Hydro and Meteorological Institute. He told RFE/RL in an interview that global warming is perhaps the biggest future challenge facing Central Asia, because of the devastating impact it could have on the region's existing environmental problems.

"Personally, I am concerned the most about greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. We have to try to diminish the amount of those gases. We have to prevent this, [but] we also have to try to adapt ourselves to climate change," Mahmadaliev said.

The most dramatic environmental problem in Central Asia is the land-locked Aral Sea. Over the past 30 years, the sea has shrunk to a fraction of its former size and experts say by 2015 it could totally disappear.

The main problem has been the excessive use of water, and diversion of rivers that flow into the Aral, to sustain the production of cotton in desert areas of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Lioubimtseva says temperatures in Central Asia have already risen by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the past century and that intensifying global warming is likely to make the Aral Sea crisis worse.

"We are expecting that this region will become warmer and, on the other hand, the precipitation will most likely continue to decrease. This, of course, would lead to even more dramatic increase of aridity and even more dramatic desertification, which is already quite significant, at least in the Aral Sea countries," Lioubimtseva said.

Salt, sand, and dust from exposed Aral Sea mud beds blow across the region, harming people and crops. Pesticides and fertilizers from farms have poisoned food and drinking water.

The human cost of the crisis, which the conference is certain to touch upon, has been high. Infant mortality rates in the Aral Sea area are consistently among the highest in the former Soviet Union.

Lioubimtseva, a geographer, says that since 1992, irrigation for cotton has steadily increased across the region. But she also says there are signs that governments want to address the crisis.

"Good news for this region is that many countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are looking for diversification of their agriculture, stated reduction of cotton production and increase of production of other agricultural crops that would probably require less water," Lioubimtseva said.

A key issue also under focus will be water management.

With their mountain glaciers, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan are the chief water producers for the region. An Afghan expert is scheduled to discuss water issues at the forum.

Although global-warming predictions for the next two or three decades are difficult to make, Lioubimtseva says most experts agree that rising temperatures can be expected to melt glaciers and thus impact the region's water supply and topography.

"Simple logic would suggest that the melting of the water in the mountains would produce more water. But on the other hand, there is a very big potential risk, for example, for increasing frequency of landslides, mudslides, and other catastrophic events associated with an increase of temperature in the mountains," Lioubimtseva said.

Organizers hope the conference -- the first of its kind -- will become an annual gathering of experts discussing Central Asia's environmental issues.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)