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Central Asia is characterised by its breathtaking natural beauty, diverse landscapes, and rich resources. However, it is also a region that is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, given its propensity for natural disasters, reliance on carbon-intensive economies, and at times, precarious access to food and water. Mounting socio-economic issues within the region - in particular, a growing rural-urban divide - exacerbate these problems amid growing climate insecurity.
Of the Central Asian nations, Tajikistan is the most vulnerable to these effects. Researchers consider the country to be the 8th most at-risk for drought in the world, and current projections foresee a 5.5 C° rise in temperature that will considerably increase this risk. The glacial melting that is predicted to result from such a change will also increase the frequency of natural disasters, such as landslides, mudslides, and flooding. These effects will undoubtedly have massive impacts on the people of Tajikistan in both urban and rural locales - a prospect that has left the nation with the difficult question of how to address such environmental insecurity.
The Central Asia Barometer (CAB) Survey is a biannual large-scale research project that began in 2017, which measures social, economic, and political atmospheres in Central Asian nations. Since 2019, CAB has incorporated several questions pertaining to the environment into the Survey, to gain a deeper understanding of issues such as the level of environmental concern and awareness, food security, and water access within these nations. Our results from Tajikistan show that while many citizens are cognizant of environmental issues and their effects, those from urban areas are slightly more concerned about these problems than their rural counterparts. These insights were developed in collaboration with the Green Enterprise Institute, an environmentally focused think tank based in London, developing research and solutions for a more sustainable world.
These results are surprising, given that although the effects of climate change are felt globally, it is vulnerable populations that disproportionately bear the brunt of these impacts - in particular, poor, rural populations whose livelihoods are endangered by changes in natural resources. This is especially true for Tajikistan, which suffers from a pronounced divide between its urban and largely agrarian rural populations. The effects of climate change have the capacity to disrupt agrarian economies and thrust rural populations further into poverty, a prospect which is especially concerning given that the remittances (primarily from Russia) upon which these communities are often so reliant have been threatened by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.
Tajikistan’s path towards mitigating its environmental insecurities will thus need to take into consideration the experiences of both rural and urban populations, with a focus on the former, as they will face the effects of climate change most severely. The nation has a unique opportunity to work towards economic development and environmental sustainability in tandem, as steps towards fostering “green growth” may create opportunities to ease the nation’s socio-economic dilemmas while creating a more regenerative economy.
According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, 74 percent of Tajikistan’s population lives within the country’s rural hinterlands. Climate change is expected to dramatically alter the environment of Tajikistan and severely threaten the agricultural sector, with expected increases in temperatures, drought, and extreme precipitation. The increased risk of natural hazards such as avalanches, landslides, mudslides, droughts, water insecurity, and food insecurity will all have their own substantial impacts on the livelihoods of rural residents.
Despite these potential issues, residents of rural areas typically believe that the ecological state of the country is overwhelmingly positive. Significantly, the percentage of people who perceived climate change as “not a problem at all” doubled from 10 percent in the spring of 2019 to 20 percent in Fall 2021. Counterintuitively, most believe the government should pay attention to environmental issues.
Compared to 2019, there was a significant rise in the number of people who could not point to any particular environmental issue of concern. Of those who offered an answer, issues of inefficient waste processing, air, and water pollution were most prevalent.
The increase in the number of people who do not see climate change as a problem is a worrying proposition given the complex socio-economic repercussions that climate change may have upon these communities.
In particular, rising temperatures will increase the variability of precipitation events, increasing Tajikistan’s susceptibility to drought and decreasing the quality and amount of arable land whilst leading to depleted river basins over time. Harsh precipitation events will subsequently become more frequent, which will further wash away nutrients from the weak topsoil spoiled by decades of monocropping agriculture practices focused on water-intensive cotton exports. Long-dry periods and increasing temperatures in the Spring and Summer will also not only increase the desertification progress in south and central Tajikistan but will increase the water needs of basic agriculture crops by 20-30 percent when compared to today.
In addition, Tajikistan is expected to lose over half of its glacial landmass by 2050, significantly reducing the amount of water in the main rivers used for irrigation such as the Panj and Vakhsh. This is a worrying prospect, given that over 90 percent of the cotton industry and two-thirds of Tajikistan’s agriculture industry is fed by irrigation. This may pose a serious problem for agricultural areas, where the need for water will increase due to soil erosion. Cotton margins are slim, and the effects of climate change could push several hundred thousand cotton farmers into further food insecurity amidst food price increases.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), young Tajikistanis are already feeling the effects of food insecurity on their health. Approximately only 20 percent of children in Tajikistan receive adequate food nutrition, whilst roughly 26 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted, as food insecurity frequently turns into nutritional deficiency in rural areas.
Whilst young citizens are suffering from the effects of food insecurity, those involved in agricultural production are facing uncertainty from inefficient practices. As outlined in Tajikistan’s national climate adaptation strategy, rural communities require more access to education about the consequences of climate change and the effect it will have on their livelihoods. One practical solution outlined in the strategy suggests the implementation of increased agroforestry activity within the agricultural sector. Studies have shown that agroforestry activities in Central Asia that promote biodiversity boost the growing season as they reinvigorate the soil, produce more gross output than monocropping, and create nutritious food sources for the communities that grow them.
Rural residents’ resilience against climate threats is further threatened by debt and a poor irrigation management system. Tajikistan's irrigation system is based on mechanised irrigation pumps, for which farming communities struggle to afford the cost of energy. This results in large debts to energy providers. Remittances from abroad are used to pay this debt, absolving money that could be better spent elsewhere. Through this, rural communities become debt-trapped. One feasible solution to break this cycle and contribute to sustainable outcomes may be to halt water pumping activities altogether and export the energy surplus to neighbouring countries or urban areas where demand is increasing. This will not only break a long-established pattern of non-regenerative debt but also gives rural communities the chance to become sustainable in the long term. Surplus money can be used to establish savings cooperatives that can be distributed in the event of crops failing.
Whilst Dushanbe, Khujand, Kulob, and other significant urban areas face substantial environmental challenges as well, the effects of climate change in urbanised settlements present a vastly different set of obstacles than those in rural communities. The population of Dushanbe grew by nearly 350,000 people between 2000 and 2020 and is projected to grow to a further 500,000 by 2035. This has the potential to exacerbate climate vulnerabilities found in urban spaces.
When asked their opinion on the overall ecological state of Tajikistan, the vast majority of respondents residing in urban settlements chose positive answers. Despite significant optimism on this issue, the bulk of these same respondents saw climate change as a very serious problem or a somewhat serious problem.
Compared to respondents residing in rural regions, urbanites appeared slightly less positive about the nation’s ecological state and regarded climate change to be marginally more serious than their rural compatriots.
Of those who provided an example of a worrying environmental issue, air pollution was a clear concern, with pollution and industrialization cited as primary causes of climate change throughout all survey waves.
Tajikistan’s non-ferrous metal production industry plays a major role in the generation of large amounts of toxic waste gases. Dushanbe is a hotspot for polluting industries - including coal power plants, cement plants, and waste-burning sites. These facilities contributed to the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) recording “good” air quality for just five days in the first four months of 2022. Outside of Dushanbe, near the border with Uzbekistan, the Tursunzoda aluminium plant is one of the nation’s most dangerous industrial polluters.
Tajikistan’s government has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by between 30 and 40 percent by 2030 and is a signatory of both the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. But, with the lowest GDP per capita in Central Asia, rolling electricity blackouts, little international investment, and weak institutions; meaningful solutions to tackle pollution have eluded policymakers. Lacking a meaningful response to the issue, air pollution levels in 2018 increased once again, returning to highs last seen in the late Soviet period.
The government of Tajikistan should aim to raise awareness of the causes of climate change and boost knowledge of the challenges facing urban and industrialised areas, through stimulating academic and NGO discussion on a domestic level. Imitating this initiative on an intra-regional level through economic and integration organisations would help to provide avenues for debate on achievable emissions-cutting objectives and ways to improve air quality and reduce pollution in urbanised areas.
Following the end of central resource supplies with the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan relied upon the unrestrained deforestation of shrubs and trees to meet energy demands. The government also implemented large-scale coal mining and burning to solve this issue, providing cheap energy to the population at a heavily subsidised rate; damaging not only the environment but also the nation’s economy. Even today, coal is seen as a cheap option to solve pressing energy issues in Tajikistan. Large international investors provide the domestic coal industry preferential long-term loans and shift external costs and all risk to the government and the taxpayer, further enshrining the nation’s coal dependence.
The Environmental Protection Ministry should look to further engage international NGOs on emissions-cutting, insulation, and upgrading Soviet-era electricity and heating infrastructure. Providing incentives for private industry to foster renewable energy could play a significant role in reducing harmful emissions polluting the population and environment.
As a result of urbanisation booms, many residents of Tajikistan are forced to reside in informal settlements, with the number reported at 26 percent in 2016. Tajikistan possesses the lowest level of housing stock within the Central Asia and Europe region, with only 163 places to live per 1000 residents. Informal settlements are generally built in high-risk areas and are prone to landslides, mudslides, and other environmental hazards. This is an especially important consideration when discussing urban heat islands - an urban or metropolitan area that experiences warmer temperatures than surrounding rural areas. Climate change and heat islands increase the prevalence of water-borne diseases and illnesses, which affect informal settlement communities disproportionately due to a lack of access to proper sanitation and sewage systems. Urban planners from Dushanbe, Khujand, and other cities must incorporate informal settlements into long-term health, development, and environmental policy in order to mitigate further climate risk.
When considering how best to grapple with the unique environmental concerns faced by Tajikistani citizens, the government must consider the divergent experiences of both its urban and rural populations. This will be key in developing sustainable strategies for combating environmental insecurity, given the unequal socio-economic burden that these issues foist upon those who are dependent upon agriculture and other natural resources.
As evident from CAB’s survey data, an essential first step in bridging this rural-urban divide would be to establish programs to raise awareness of climate issues across the nation. Tajikistan should also look to implement policy frameworks that focus on developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power and move away from a reliance on hydropower and inefficient Soviet-era heating and energy infrastructure. Addressing rural communities, policymakers could look to introduce sustainable farming programs which increase biodiversity and limit monoculture practices which will help to create jobs, alleviate reliance on cash crops for income, and increase access to more nutritious food. To mitigate the environmental challenges faced by urbanites, stimulating debate on a domestic NGO level and through intra-regional organisations on achievable goals for emissions-cutting, and providing incentives for private industry to foster renewable sources could play a role in reducing the prevalence of toxic emissions. Urban planners should also look to incorporate the needs of those residing in informal settlements into long-term development policy to reduce mounting climate risk.
Policymakers should consider the huge solar potential of Tajikistan’s summer months as well. Renewable energy firms in China who look to independently operate on China’s Belt and Road initiative after being priced out of mainland China and the U.S. are looking for opportunities to expand - Tajikistan could be their next major target.
Adopting strategies such as these will allow Tajikistan to combat environmental insecurity while also working towards sustainable economic development - helping both people and the planet.
Elizabeth Woods is a research fellow at Central Asia Barometer and an anthropology graduate student at the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on Kazakh return migrants and questions of identity, belonging, and homeland. You can find her onLinkedInorTwitter.
Thomas Baker is a research fellow at Central Asia Barometer. After completing his master’s degree at King’s College London’s Russia Institute, he now works as an OSINT country risk researcher for the Former Soviet Union region at S&P Global. Get in touch with Thomas viaLinkedIn.
William Adkison is the lead researcher for the urban development team at the Green Enterprise Institute. He is passionate about accelerating climate action and pushing for research in areas that typically go unrecognized.