When white turns to grey




By Charles van der Leeuw


This week, a large global seminar attended by high-brow, high-level representatives of most countries around the globe is supposed to come to an end.


The final session is expected to be attended by heads of state and heads of governments, including most of those in charge of EU member states, the USA, China, former Soviet republics and what formerly used to be known as the Third World. At that session, cards shuffled in the run-up are supposed to be put on the table, resulting in an updated version, ready to be put into implementation, of the Kyoto Agreement on emissions of CO2 gases, held responsible for most of the global warming currently in process.

Copenhagen seems a long way off the daily headaches of Central Asia's farmers and their produce's consumers. For them, water is more important than protocols. According to a recent report by the Eurasian Development Bank, the meltdown of glaciers in the Tien Shan to the immediate south of Almaty, the Alatau to its northeast, the Ala-Too south of Bishkek, and the Pamir-Alai in eastern Tajikistan is set to increase the volumes of river water runoff by up to three times within no more than a decade or so if the current process persists. This will increase the frequency of mudflows by five times, and things are due to get much worse if the development is accompanied by so-called lake bursts. If, for instance, the Adygin basin breaks through its barriers, mudflows are likely to become monthly routine, and when the same happens to larger reservoirs such as Yaschinkul and/or Isfairam, there will be mud avalanches lasting for years without much disruption.

Kyrgyzstan has 1,923 lakes with a total water surface of 6,840 square kilometers," the EDB report reads. "The largest lakes are Issyk-Kul, Son-Kul and Chatyr-Kul. Freshwater reserves held by these lakes amount to an estimated 1,745 cubic kilometers. Kyrgyzstan's main lakes account for more than 55 per cent of the total water surface of all the lakes in Central Asia. In all, under present-day conditions Kyrgyzstan withholds between one-fifth and a quarter of the water its landscape generates. Together with Tajikistan's supplies, this should leave downstream countries with enough water to sustain their agricultural resources.

Apparently, it does not. And the squabbling in
Copenhagen's conference rooms has everything to do with it. As early as by the end of the 2030s Kazakhstan's arable territories will have to reckon with a loss of more than 10 per cent of its water supplies if the worst case scenario, which the EDB took from a scale developed by a global warming think tank in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES), takes place. Under a more moderate scenario, which takes the global implementation of the Kyoto Protocol into account, losses will still be in the order of 6 per cent.

"If the increase in temperature reaches 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, the steppe climate of the upper foothill zone of the Iliysky Alatau will transform into a desert climate," the EDB warns in its report. "These areas, currently covered with grass and bushes, will lose their loess cover and turn into wastelands. Virtually all liquid precipitation is due to result in mud flows, and mudflow sediments will cover the most productive soils in the plains under the mountain. A sharp increase in solid runoff from rivers flowing into the
Ili will accelerate the silting process of the Kapchagay reservoir, and change the hydrological conditions in the Ili's delta and Lake Balkhash. Farms subsisting on irrigation water will face serious problems, as the water is going to be unfit for irrigation and irrigation systems will be filled with debris."

The most astounding element in it all is that there is no overall lack of water anywhere in sight for Central Asia in the near future and beyond -- greenhouse effect or not. Even in the worst scenario included in the
Kyoto documents, meant to be updated during Copenhagen's event, the amount of supplies in the region remains basically the same. Only the breakdown of its locations is due to change dramatically, much of which can be controlled and rectified by human ingenuity -- in theory as well as in practice. The main difference between the two lies in the difference between incompetent and competent leadership and management. Waiting until the global squabbling over quota ends is waiting for the end to come all the sooner for it. If leaderships cannot do anything about it, it will be up to the population to do something on a smaller scale. Local communities can look ahead more clearly than boardroom folk -- for the simple reason that for the latter theory counts more than practice, as opposed to those who are threatened with drowning with a dry throat.