Climate dilemmas in Central Asia

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    Photo © Rasmus Heltberg/World Bank

How should climate change be addressed in Tajikistan, the poorest and—according to a World Bank regional assessment, most climate-vulnerable—country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?1  On a recent visit to this scenic nation to assess the poverty aspects of climate change, we struggled with this seemingly simple question. Answers remain elusive, given the country’s daunting climate dilemmas. So, while in Dushanbe, I attempted to write about the range of the challenge.

First, consider Tajikistan’s thousands of glaciers, many of which are receding. As they melt, farmers downstream enjoy plentiful water supply and see no need to take action. However, once the glaciers are gone, dry rivers and extreme water scarcity could mean the end of farming livelihoods in some areas.

Water is also at the heart of another dilemma—irrigation versus hydropower. Much of Central Asia’s water originates in Tajikistan’s mountains, and other countries crave this water to irrigate thirsty cotton crops in summer. But Tajikistan needs the water year-round for hydropower, its only significant domestic source of energy.  Climate change will complicate this situation further as water flows start to diminish or become less predictable.

When planning for long-term national adaptation to climate change, migration assumes great importance. Most of Tajikistan’s people (and the bulk of the economy) are in major valleys, while some live in mountain highlands highly vulnerable to natural disasters as rainfall, though less frequent, becomes more intense. Notably, migration is already the mainstay of the economy. Tajikistan received remittances equivalent to 40% of its GDP last year—almost all from male migration to Russia. What does this mean for planning? Invest in the most vulnerable areas to stem migration, or surrender these areas as indefensible?

Finally, some ask whether planning for climate change makes sense at all when Tajikistan faces an economic crisis and serious poverty right now. Yet the people I have spoken to were clear that the country cannot afford to ignore climate change. They pointed out that many actions are needed right away—better land and water management, disaster preparedness, and public health improvements. The impact of climate change on health is a major concern, with malaria and water-borne infections on the rise and the quality of drinking water on the decline.

Given these complex challenges, there are no easy answers. However, some adaptation-friendly projects are relying on community-driven approaches to improve rural livelihoods, manage watersheds, and distribute canal water. FOCUS, an NGO in the Aga Khan Development Network, works to prepare villagers for inevitable natural disasters. Their specialists predict the likely path of mudslides and work with villagers to either relocate exposed houses or erect diversionary structures. While efforts like this weren’t conceived under the banner of adaptation, that is pretty much what they are doing—striving to create sustainable and resilient development—one community, one watershed, and one water -user group at a time. Of course, this costs money and relies on funding by overseas donors.

Like many former Soviet countries, Tajikistan has a legacy of crumbling infrastructure and disregard for the environment. Neighboring Uzbekistan has a singular focus on growing cotton even though the crop is ill-suited to Central Asia’s arid climate. Cotton is also the major crop in Tajikistan’s fertile valleys. Focusing on what not to do might be a first step to adapt to the climate-exacerbated risk of water scarcity. If farmers had more crop choice, they might diversify or switch to less water-intensive crops. It would also be good for farm profits, while costing the government and donors nothing.

1 Based on an index of vulnerability to climate change that combines exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. See “Adapting to Climate Change in Europe and Central Asia”, World Bank, 2009.

My other blogs on pro-poor adaptation can be found on All opinions are solely mine.


Rasmus Heltberg

Lead Evaluation Officer, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

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