Cooperation, Speculation, Uncertainty: Forecasting Central Eurasia’s Water Future

Last September Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov drew international attention when he claimed that Tajikistan’s plans to build the world’s tallest (355m) “Rogun” hydroelectric dam could spark a regional water war.

Karimov said, “Water resources could become a problem in the future that could escalate tensions not only in our region, but on every continent…I won’t name specific countries, but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result (Reuters).”

Speculation over potential water conflict in Central Eurasia predates Karimov’s warning, and has increased in light of increasing concern over potential impacts of climate change for regional “hydropolitics.” But in this International Year of Water Cooperation, Karimov’s alarmist reaction to Tajikistan’s energy plans helps to frame an important consideration:

How can concerns over the region’s future water availability helpfully be taken into account for present day planning and development? “Water cooperation” implies some sort of well-informed, goal-driven exercise in balancing competing demands. What are the limitations with which such a process must contend? What can the research tell us?

A recent study seeks to model and analyze the relationship between changing hydrological dynamics and potential water stress in the highly populated Syr Darya River basin and Ferghana Valley of Central Asia. The study (Siegfried et al, 2012), published in the journal Climatic Change, asks “Will climate change exacerbate water stress in Central Asia?” The goal of the article is to inform a process by which policymakers might anticipate and mitigate these threats.

Siegfried and his coauthors navigate between two views of the region’s hydro-political future, one “optimistic” and the other “pessimistic.” These represent opposite starting points for anticipatory planning for climate change and water management. The authors write,

“The pessimistic view is that a warming climate will reduce available water and, particularly if combined with rising water demand, increase the propensity for water-related conflicts among the riparian countries. Another, more optimistic view is that increasing temperatures cause a depletion of snow and glacier storage in higher altitude regions that translates into additional runoff, which at least in the next few decades, will avoid a deterioration of the supply-demand ratio (884-885).”

In terms of Karimov’s concerns, Tajikistan’s hydropower development suggests increasing demand of water resources by upstream countries. It also stokes concerns over conflicting water demands between hydropower and agricultural uses, which introduce complexity in terms of when is a desirable time to release water from reservoirs. Certainly, a firm grasp of glacial and snow runoff dynamics would be a key input into an informed analysis of whether these competing and potentially increasing demands can be met in the coming decades, and thus whether or not conflict might arise.

The report points to the unsurprising phenomenon that, “policy-makers in Central Asia (and elsewhere) act on their perception of existing and projected reality. Which of the two opposing views they believe in thus has important political implications (885).” The researchers’ intention is to relieve some of the guesswork and speculation involved in formulating these “perceptions,” such that water-related policy and planning might reflect more empirically-grounded and less paranoia-based (and fear-inducing) projections of future water stress and conflict.

The authors warn that such an analysis, which would seek to determine whether runoff will increase or decrease in the short to medium term (by 2050), is difficult to produce, “since runoff patterns of snow- and glacier-melt dominated rivers respond in complex ways to a warming climate (885).” Nonetheless, they are able to derive some conclusions.

One intriguing conclusion from the data is that, “the most important impacts of climate change in the Syr Darya basin emerge from significant changes in the seasonality of runoff (892).” Under certain modeled conditions for the Syr Darya catchment, “the runoff peak…shifts by 30–60 days from the current spring/early summer towards a late winter/early spring runoff regime.” In an alternative simulation though, which inputs a less dramatic temperature change, this shift is “less pronounced and, especially for the high altitude catchments, hardly noticeable (893).”

For the authors, this finding confirms “the critical temperature sensitivity of the runoff regime in snow- and glacier-melt driven basins and how they may react to different climate forcings. It also points to large scenario uncertainty (893).” In other words, the most important climate change impact on water availability in the study site is likely to be a shift towards earlier peak runoff, yet the amplitude of this shift depends on interactions between temperature and runoff that are too sensitive and complex for the simulations to model precisely at this time.

Nonetheless, Siegfried et al. conclude with some recommendations that climate change adaptation initiatives might take into consideration in planning for future water resource management in the highly-populated and transboundary Syr Darya basin. With regard to the “optimistic viewpoint,” they remark that “gambling on increased water availability due to climate-induced glacier- and snow-melt to solve the international water and energy allocation conflict would be a risky political strategy (896-897).” Instead, the authors propose a program of increased infrastructural investment and “better management.” They write,

“The seasonal shift in runoff, as projected by our model, is likely to cause serious problems, notably in unregulated subcatchments, that can only be addressed by targeted construction of new storage and conveyance infrastructure and better management (897).”

Siegfried and his coauthors recommend a combination of increased water storage capacity, with “innovative” management approaches that take expected conditions into consideration. For example, the authors posit a system of compensation for water storage and release between upstream and downstream neighbors. They write,

“Compensation levels could…be tied to expected future climate variability, with water savings in the non-vegetation period preceding an expected below-average hydrological year (as determined by probabilistic forecasts) carrying a higher value for compensation than water-savings in normal or above-normal periods (897).”

This study presents a fascinating example of the interplay between unpredictable change and complex socio-environmental systems. Despite their wary approach to deriving firm predictions of climate change impacts, the authors concluding recommendations paint an optimistic picture of the capacity of targeted investment to counteract conflict-inducing variability in runoff patterns. The next post in this blog series will provide some alternative viewpoints into how planning and change interact under conditions of uncertainty.