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Shrinking Glaciers Threaten Tajikistan's Economic Dreams

The Tajik village of Barchid has seen a changing of the seasons, and less water to boot.
The Tajik village of Barchid has seen a changing of the seasons, and less water to boot.
Like many other farmers in the remote village of Barchid, lying in the shadow of Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains, Makbulsho Yakinshoev knows little about issues like greenhouse-gas emissions or global warming.

But the 65-year-old Tajik farmer knows what he sees, and for years he has seen his fruit and vegetable harvests decline as the glacier that looms above his village retreats.

"In the past I used to sell 50 to 100 kilograms of tomatoes and cucumbers. It's my main source of income. Last year I had barely any harvest," Yakinshoev says. He says that he used to be able to send five sacks of potatoes and carrots to his two children who study in Dushanbe for the winter, but this year he could only send them one.

Over the years, Yakinshoev has observed many changes in Barchid, which is located some 3,000 meters above sea level and depends on a glacier of the same name for drinking water and irrigation. In the past decade, "it seems that the winter seasons have become warmer and the summer months much cooler and shorter than before," Yakinshoev says. "Summer is over before my tomatoes turn red, and the shortage of water is harming the potato crop."

And Yakinshoev isn't the only one noticing. Scientists both in Tajikistan and abroad link the water shortages, the cooler summer seasons, and the increasingly warmer winters to climate change. "In the past, the impacts of global warming were more evident in the valleys," says Haqnazar Oghonazarov, director of Tajikistan's Pamir Biological Institute. "But now we are witnessing very obvious signs of climate change in the mountains, too, thousands of meters above sea level."

Suffering From Change

Statistically, Tajikistan is not considered a major contributor to climate change. The country ranks 109th in the world in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, and 129th in emissions per capita, according to a recent report by Oxfam International. The country's 7 million people emit fewer than a ton of carbon dioxide per person every year, compared to nearly 20 tons per capita by North Americans.

Some rivers have been running dry in recent years.
However, it is one of countries hit hardest by climate change, according to nongovernmental organizations focused on reducing poverty and its causes. A recent Oxfam report, titled "Reaching Tipping Point? Climate Change And Poverty In Tajikistan," warned that shrinking glaciers and extreme weather conditions could erode food security over the next four decades in Tajikistan. It's a scenario that could have dire consequences if not addressed in time: the loss of flora and fauna, outmigration, and even regional instability.

According to data cited by Oxfam, Tajikistan has seen a temperature rise of 1.0-1.2 degrees Celsius from 1940-2000, while 20 percent of its more than 8,000 glaciers have retreated, and some have disappeared completely.

Drought in the country, in which nearly two-thirds of agricultural production depends on irrigation, has become common. Before good rains broke the cycle in 2009, Tajikistan endured three consecutive drought years. During those years, the country's water supply was dependent on glacier melt to the tune of 80 percent during the summer months; in normal seasons melting glaciers would supply around 10-20 percent of the water that flows through the country's immense network of rivers.

Temperatures have explored extreme limits: 2008 was one of the coldest winters on record, with temperatures reaching minus 40 degrees Celsius and contributing to crop losses.

Shrinking Glaciers

Scientists predict that droughts will be ever more frequent in the coming years. Oxfam says that in addition to those that have already retreated or melted, up to 30 percent of Tajikistan's glaciers will shrink or disappear completely by 2050.

The Fedchenko Glacier, a massive glacier located in central Badakhshan Province some 80 kilometers to the north of Barchid, provides one of the most alarming examples. Sitting 6,500 meters above sea level and covering 700 square kilometers, the world's longest glacier outside the polar regions is melting at a rate of 16-20 meters a year.

Overall, Oghonazarov of the Pamir Biological Institute says, "glaciers, the treasure troves of water, are getting increasingly thinner and smaller."

"The amount of water coming from glaciers is diminishing. In the past, spring waters in each village were enough to cover our local irrigation needs," Oghonazarov adds. "Now there's an obvious water deficit in our villages." Meanwhile, the rivers' water volumes have fallen considerably because of the shrinking glaciers.

Left High And Dry

Considering that Tajikistan's glaciers feed some 50 percent of the rivers in all of Central Asia, any drop in the water supply could have severe implications across the entire region. Water resources have already been a source of disagreements between the region's upstream countries, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and downstream Uzbekistan. Dwindling water supplies could bring a rise in tensions.

There are also enormous economic issues at stake. Tajikistan has high hopes to boost its bankrupt economy and resolve its longstanding energy crisis by drawing on its immense wealth of rivers to generate hydroelectric power . Any drop in water volumes could put the country's plans to become an energy exporter in jeopardy.

Farmer Makbulsho Yakinshoev wonders if he'll need to find a new livelihood at 65.
It's not only people who stand to suffer from climate change. Oghonazarov says many rare species of animals and plants could face extinction. "I can speak in concrete numbers. In the recent past, there were, on average, 10-15 wild plants per square meter. Now, that number has decreased by 20-25 percent," he says. "Around residential areas, the amount of grass and plants -- the primary source of food for grazing animals -- has decreased by up to 40 percent due to water shortages."

Tajikistan has stationed dozens of scientists in Badakhshan to monitor the effects of climate change to the area's flora, fauna. They keep a close eye on melting glaciers, but stopping or reducing the pace of climate change is beyond their control.

Oghonazarov says that all Tajikistan can do is to adapt itself to new realities. "We are trying to find other alternatives for local farming -- vegetables that require less water or can survive water shortages," he says. The Pamir Biological Institute is preparing a new manual for local farmers offering them advice on how to adapt to climate change. "It's not an easy task, though," the institute's director adds.

Yakinshoev, in the meantime, is running low on food to get his family through the end of this winter, and is already anxious about the coming farming season. "I used to work as a carpenter during the Soviet times," he says. "But I had to change my occupation and take up farming because the money I got from my previous job was no longer enough to support my family."

Now, the elderly farmer admits he has considered changing his occupation once again. But considering his age and the rampant unemployment in the country, Yakinshoev fears it might be too late.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent in Khorog, Mirzojalol Shohjamol, contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.