The Central Asian region is of critical strategic importance to the United States and its NATO allies. That is why, on top of environmental and humanitarian concerns associated with the phenomenon, rapid glacial melt in the region should be a top concern for national security planners and practitioners.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change has painted a worrying picture of the Tien Shan mountain glaciers, which feed the rivers and water supply of “arid zones of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Northwestern China.” The researchers concluded:
According to projections, the Tien Shan Mountain glaciers will continue to lose their surface and volume in the coming decades.
In summary, certain Central Asian streams would move from a glacio-nival hydrological regime to a pluvio-nival regime, which would increase [sic] uncertainty regarding interannual variations in water levels, since they would be largely dependent on precipitation. Economic and political tensions in this area of the world would be added to the potentially disastrous environmental consequences.
The impact on Kyrgyzstan, which is often referred to as the “water tower” of the region, is especially worrying, given the potential regional security implications. As we noted in a blog this past May:
For the United States and its NATO allies, Kyrgyzstan has been a key transit center for supplies and personnel on the way to Afghanistan, housing the important Manas Air Base. Russia also has an air base in the country, maintaining its physical ties to the former Soviet state. The country is a natural stop along the old Silk Road trading route, which is in the process of being revived in modern form by China and Turkey – two key powers that essentially bookend the entire region from the east and west. On a regional scale, Kyrgyzstan hosts the headwaters of many of Central Asia’s major transboundary rivers, making it a critical source of fresh water for a number of neighboring countries.
This is certainly a region to watch closely in a climate changing world.