Improving Central Asia’s climate resilience through the water–agriculture–energy nexus

Source(s): Development Asia
An Asian women harvesting crops in the middle of a field.


Excessive reliance on water resources and their inefficient use are the primary reasons for Central Asia’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, which are making water more scarce. Countries should prioritize increasing water efficiency across sectors. Promoting less water-intensive sectors of the economy is a pertinent adaptation strategy.

Given the interconnectedness of water, agriculture, and energy systems in Central Asia, regional cooperation is fundamental to enhancing climate resilience and could unlock multiple benefits for all parties. The advantages of increased collaboration extend far beyond timely availability of water for food production and balancing electricity supply–demand mismatches. Regional cooperation would also facilitate sustainable energy development as it offers better alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the power sector. A report published by the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Institute looked into the climate vulnerabilities of Central Asia's water, agriculture, and energy sectors at the provincial level.

Shared resources, divergent needs

In Central Asia, water is a scarce and unevenly distributed resource that is shared across borders. Transboundary linkages are strongest in the region's south, where the majority of river runoff originates in the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan's highlands, while most water withdrawals occur in southern Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan’s irrigated plains.

The reliance on water resources differs among upstream and downstream countries. The Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan depend on hydropower for more than 90% of their electricity because they lack fossil fuel supplies. Meanwhile, those downstream use water for irrigated agricultural production, which accounts for more than 90% of total withdrawals. The high energy consumption for pumping irrigation water during the vegetative season intensifies this water–agriculture–energy nexus.

Important linkages between water and energy systems also exist in downstream countries with abundant fossil resources, such as Kazakhstan, which use significant amounts of water for mining and processing fossil fuels. The annual cycles of water demand in agriculture and energy systems across the region do not coincide. This makes countries located downstream reliant on the timely release of water from large hydro dams upstream.

Climate change impacts

According to global hydrological projections, climate change may amplify regional disparities in water resource endowment. River discharge in the southern basins could decline while it could increase in the northern basins. The shifts in river flows may be more pronounced during the growing season of the main crops, when water is most needed for irrigation in the southern part.

Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 2.6: Carbon emissions could peak globally in 2020 and reach zero by 2100. RCP 8.5: Carbon emissions continue to increase throughout the century. Source: CAREC Institute.

As most provinces downstream of the basins are already vulnerable to high levels of water stress, any further gap between water supply and demand would have exacerbating consequences for water-dependent sectors.

Central Asia's high sensitivity to climate change is due to poor water resource utilization rather than a lack of resources. The region's total water withdrawals per capita may be among the highest in the world, but its economic productivity of water usage is among the lowest. Furthermore, the proportional significance of agriculture in the local economy will magnify the climatic consequences in many areas. Currently, agriculture accounts for half of overall employment and the gross regional product in several provinces across the region.

Similarly, the region's energy use is marked by high resource consumption and poor economic production. This is especially true for the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, which are among the world's highest electricity consumers per GDP. Except for Kazakhstan, countries in the region have power rates that are below cost-recovery levels, and energy generation, transmission, and distribution are mostly under state control.

Regional cooperation for effective adaptation and mitigation

Previously, Central Asian countries were linked by a common water–power system. Water releases and electricity supplies from upstream states were compensated with energy supplies from downstream states during the cold season. This collaboration came to an end in recent decades as nations sought self-sufficiency policies in water and energy, resulting in debates on fair water allocation. The issue complicates upstream nations' energy security while compromising downstream governments' water supply security and resulting in significant economic loss for all parties.

Coordination of transboundary water resource management can improve the region's resilience to hydrological droughts. It also implies more cooperation on power exchanges between nations that could give upstream countries more flexible options for offsetting seasonal shortages and surpluses.

The long-term benefits of regional collaboration appear to be substantial. Climate-related imperatives place further strain on the region's ability to satisfy long-term energy demands. Energy forecasts show that electricity consumption in Central Asia may increase by at least 50% by 2050 because of population and economic expansion. However, compliance with the Paris climate accord requires that any further development in power capacity come largely from renewable sources. It puts an additional burden of GHG emissions reduction, particularly on Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, where power generation is far more carbon-intensive.

Regional cooperation could enable governments to reduce power-generating costs and minimize capital expenditures for redundant power capacities. The greatest gain though may come from improved possibilities for utilizing the region's untapped renewable energy potential.

Key takeaways

Increase efficiency of natural water use across the main sectors. Countries should prioritize improving water efficiency across the agriculture, energy, and water sectors to reduce their sensitivity to adverse climate impacts. Any further economic and social activity without optimal water efficiency, particularly in irrigated agriculture, represents a lost opportunity with compounded implications and repercussions for the economy. Serious efforts for reducing water dependency and increasing economic efficiencies of water use will be key to adaptation strategies of the economies of Central Asia.

Diversify the economy and promote less resource-intensive sectors. Given the current strong economic reliance on agriculture in many parts of the region, scaling and supporting other sectors is an immediate policy imperative. This is equally true for the subregions that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction and processing and have neglected technological growth and knowledge accumulation in other sectors. Reducing the carbon footprint of resource utilization is a pathway toward more sustainable economies in the region.

Put regional cooperation at the front of climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Water cooperation is essential to strengthening climate resilience. Coordinated management of upstream water storage could enhance regional resilience to hydrological droughts on seasonal and annual timescales. In turn, the upstream states benefit from increased energy security. The advantages of regional collaboration extend far beyond the lower seasonal water and electricity supply–demand mismatches. It could also facilitate sustainable energy development in the region. Central Asia's long-term energy security would be substantially bolstered by more diverse power supply, and the countries would have better options for long-term GHG emission reductions in the power sector.

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