Subscribe to download Archive

bneGREEN: Drought causes mass livestock die-offs and irrigation water shortages in Central Asia

Studies point to shifts in precipitation patterns in the Tian Shan mountains that supply Central Asia with much of its freshwater for irrigation and pasture.
Studies point to shifts in precipitation patterns in the Tian Shan mountains that supply Central Asia with much of its freshwater for irrigation and pasture.

A severe drought in Central Asia is causing mass livestock die-offs and shortages of water for irrigation, The Third Pole has reported.

“In two provinces of Kazakhstan, more than 2,000 domesticated animals have died due to lack of water and forage. In Kyrgyzstan, farmers have staged multiple protests in the northern region of Chui because of a lack of water to irrigate their crops. The farmers say they are on the verge of losing this season’s harvest if the authorities do not supply them with water,” the multilingual platform—dedicated to providing information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there—noted.

Parts of Central Asia are experiencing the worst drought seen in the region in 13 years.

Water shortages in Uzbekistan have resulted in lost harvests and rising prices for seasonal vegetables, while the drought in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand region has disrupted the supply of drinking water. The Uzbek authorities have enforced water rationing in Samarkand city. 

In Turkmenistan, the drought is causing low pasture yields and a reduction in fodder for livestock.

Precipitation patterns

Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist at the Earth Institute of Columbia Climate School, told The Third Pole that recent studies point to shifts in precipitation patterns in the Tian Shan mountains. These mountains supply Central Asia with much of its freshwater for irrigation and pasture. “As the climate in the mountains warms, more of the precipitation falls as rain, rather than as snow,” Orlove said. “This shift is unfortunate, since snow melts slowly in the spring and summer, providing steady runoff, while rain typically runs off more quickly.”

He added: “Moreover – as the climate warms – pastures, crops and livestock all require more water for their survival, just at the time when water is becoming scarcer.”

Climate change also means precipitation is more variable from year to year. There will be more years of drought, with some years of heavier precipitation. “This variation often exceeds the capacity of reservoirs to provide a buffer of stored water which could compensate for these fluctuations,” Orlove said. 

Chinese scientists recently analysed snow cover changes in the Tian Shan mountains. The snow line is moving upward across most of the Tian Shan range, they concluded. “This is an expected response to climate change,” said William Colgan, senior researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, a research and advisory institution, commenting on the study.

“For the glaciers of the Tian Shan, this means that the healthy zone, or net accumulation area [of snow coverage], is migrating upwards – year-round snow cover is clearly retreating to the highest elevations. Such a clear snow line response to climate change during the past two decades suggests that we can expect even more striking snow line retreat over the next two decades, when climate change will be more pronounced,” Colgan said.

A 2017 report funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation stated that “despite a general commitment to cooperation, water policies in the region are mostly driven by uncoordinated national strategies. A combination of low water efficiency, negative externalities caused by unilateral action and competing national priorities have caused disagreements and contributed to political and diplomatic disputes between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.” The report calculated the cost of inaction to improve water management in Central Asia amounts to $4.5bn every year.

Researchers and experts believe that Central Asian governments still have options to mitigate extreme weather events in the region. “There are many options available to individual governments. They can support water-saving technologies. They can expand crop and livestock insurance (tied to seasonal and annual weather forecasts), which can support producers to make decisions that conserve water resources. They can promote land-use practices which conserve soil moisture. Such programmes are more effective when they are carried out in full collaboration with local organisations and communities,” Orlove was further cited as saying.

The latest study on long-term vegetation change in the western Tian Shan mountains states that changing precipitation patterns and grazing pressure have an “important management and ecological implications for Central Asian mountain grassland ecosystem properties”. It recommends crops are chosen on the basis of adaptability to environmental changes, and land-use changes are promoted that help ecosystem function in mountain pastures.

Drought kills baby flamingos 

In other climate change news, thousands of baby flamingos have reportedly died at Turkey's Lake Tuz in the past two weeks from a drought that environmentalists said was the result of climate change and agricultural irrigation methods.

Drone footage of the large saline lake in Turkey's central province of Konya showed dead flaminglets lying partially buried in dried mud, Reuters reported on July 15. Lake Tuz is home to a flamingo colony where up to 10,000 flaminglets are born every year.

Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Bekir Pakdemirli, denied that agriculture was to blame, saying: "With less water and increased concentration ratio in the water, we observed deaths of flaminglets that were unable to fly.

"I want to stress that there is no direct or indirect connection between this incident and the wells in the area or the agricultural irrigation."

Demand for water in the area of the lake outstripped supply by 30% last year, according to a report published by Turkish environmental foundation TEMA.

Lake Tuz (Salt Lake) is one of the largest hypersaline lakes in the world.

Further climate change difficulties are causing tensions in Iran—drought has left no water for hydroelectric power plants in some parts of the country, which now faces an unprecedented summer of electricity cuts as power plant disruptions and a lack of investment in new capacity leave output far below demand.