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As Climate Changes, Soviet Environmental Ills Felt Once Again

A Nenets reindeer herder on the frozen tundra some 200 kilometers northwest of Naryan-Mar.
A Nenets reindeer herder on the frozen tundra some 200 kilometers northwest of Naryan-Mar.
The Nenets, an indigenous people living in Russia's Arctic, are traditional nomads, decamping every year to seek out fresh pastures for their reindeer herds.

But that unique lifestyle is threatened. Nenets herders in the remote Yamal Peninsula complain that a steady rise in temperatures in recent years is making it harder to predict the weather. That in turn has affected the tundra's vegetation, the only source of food for the reindeer.

One of Yamal's Nenets residents, Yakov Yaptik, told Reuters the changing climate is also affecting the herders' seasonal migrations.

"With global warming, the snow started to melt much faster," Yaptik said. "Before, it would start melting in May; now it is all melted by the end of April, and that causes problems for our migration because the deer have trouble walking over the tundra when the snow has completely melted."

As more than 15,000 officials from 192 countries prepared to attend a critical United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen on December 7-18, the World Bank has warned that the former Soviet Union as a whole is already experiencing the consequences of climate change.

The bank's report, titled "Adapting to Climate Change in Europe and Central Asia" and released in June, says the fallout includes increasing irregularity in the weather, warmer temperatures, windstorms, and changing distribution of water resources.

The World Bank says temperatures will continue to rise everywhere in the region, with the greatest changes occurring in the northernmost latitudes. At the same time, water availability is projected to decrease everywhere but Russia. Even as much of the region is faced with possible droughts, floods are expected to become more common and severe. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are set to affect the Baltic and Black seas and the Arctic Ocean.

Marianne Fay, author of the report and chief economist for sustainable development at the World Bank, tells RFE/RL that climate change poses significant threats to the region, which is suffering from an "adaptation deficit" springing from the fact that it has already failed to adequately adapt to its current climate, let alone future ones.

Especially Vulnerable

According to Fay, environmental mismanagement -- a legacy of the Soviet era and the transition years that followed -- is increasing the region's vulnerability to even modest temperature increases.

"These countries already have a backlog of environmental problems," Fay says. "Having issues of water shortages when you've already overused your water [makes you] much more vulnerable."

Some experts warn Kyrgyzstan's 8,200 glaciers could be reduced to just hundreds.
Fay says rising temperatures in Central Asia will exacerbate the environmental catastrophe of the disappearing Aral Sea, caused by the expansion of irrigated land in Central Asia to increase cotton production.

The region's glaciers, which traditionally provide fresh water supplies for millions of people leaving in arid regions downstream, are receding due to warmer temperatures, putting at risk water availability in the long term.

Urustom Kabylbekov, president of the Kyrgyz NGO Mongu (Glacier), tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that most of that country's glaciers are expected to disappear over the next few decades.

"The temperature in the whole world will have gone up by an average of 3 degrees [Celsius] in 2025," Kabylbekov predicts. "In Kyrgyzstan, it will be about 4.6 degrees, according to some [scholars'] estimates -- then we'll lose most of our glaciers, but not all of them."

He notes forecasts that suggest Kyrgyzstan "might enter the tropical zone."

By 2050, experts say the number of Kyrgyz glaciers could fall from 8,200 to less than 200.

...For Many Reasons

The World Bank report says floods and other extreme weather can cause far greater damage in the former Soviet region than in other parts of the world, as dangerous industrial facilities and dump sites were often located close to heavily populated areas or weather-sensitive territories like riverbeds.

It says coastal landfills around the Black Sea have been identified as pollution hot spots, and coastal erosion due to rising sea levels could increase the amount of pollutants flushed into the sea, threatening an already struggling fishing industry.

Meanwhile, an expected decrease in the level of the Caspian Sea will expose local populations dangerous chemicals presently trapped in coastal sediments.

Fay says the region also bears the burden of generally poor infrastructure, which is ill suited to withstand extreme events like storms, heat waves, or floods.

"The region has got this legacy of run-down and over-dimensioned infrastructure that is very poorly adapted to the changing climate," Fay says. "It's harder to deal with a heat wave when your housing is poorly made and decaying, when your electricity transmission lines are not well-run and managed -- and therefore when there's a heat wave, they buckle under the heat.”

On the shores of the Black Sea, the World Bank report says a rise in the water level is threatening numerous ports and towns along the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian coasts.

In the Arctic, where temperatures have been warming at about twice the global rate, the melting of the permafrost is leading to the collapse of exposed buildings and infrastructure.

Watch: U.S. photographer Julia Calfee spent several months in the Swiss Alps taking pictures and sound recordings to document the changes in a glacier as local temperatures rise.

Extra Time To Prepare?

There have been optimistic claims that a warmer climate and abundant precipitation in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan could boost agricultural production. But Fay says climate alone is not enough to compensate for the region's already low yield:

"The benefits that could be obtained by just catching up to Western standards of agricultural productivity are about four to five times greater than the benefits that could be derived from the warming climate," Fay says. "So, unless the region starts adapting to its current climate, increasing its productivity in the agricultural sector, we're very unlikely to see the region being able to benefit [from climate change]."

According to the World Bank, while world grain yields have been growing on average by about 1.5 percent per year, they have been falling or stagnant in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Vehicle tracks on melting tundra near Novy Urengov (file photo)
The northern parts of the region are projected to see greater temperature changes in winter, with the number of days with sub-zero temperatures declining by 14-30 days a year over the next 20 to 40 years.

Southern regions, meanwhile, are expected to see the number of days with extremely hot temperatures increasing by 22-37 days a year.

However, Fay says the impact of climate change in the former Soviet space will likely remain manageable over the next decade, thereby offering the region some time to prepare for the change.

"The region] has a window of opportunity over the next 10 to 15 years where we're unlikely to see massive [climate] changes [and] during which the governments and individuals in the region can take smart decisions that carry a lot of co-benefits," she says.

Fay says improving water resource management, tackling environmental pollution problems, upgrading neglected infrastructure, and strengthening disaster management will also make the local populations "healthier" and their economic systems "more robust."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

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