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Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Climate Change

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a deal with Kyrgyzstan that would extend Russia’s military influence in the country, as well as its influence over Kyrgyzstan’s water and energy resources. According to OOSKA News:

During Putin’s official visit to Kyrgyzstan on September 19-20, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novakand Kyrgyz Minister of Energy and Industry Avtandil Kalmambetov signed an agreement to build four hydroelectric plants within the Upper Naryn cascade and another agreement to build and operate the Kambarata-1 hydropower plant.

Putin also secured a 15-year extension to Russia’s lease on its military base in the country.

On top of this agreement, the Kyrgyz government also confirmed that it would not extend the lease of the United States’ Manas Air Base, set to expire in 2014, which has been used as a critical transit base for flying U.S. and allied troops into and out of Afghanistan.

This move by Russia complicates an already tense relationship that exists between Kyrgyzstan and its downstream neighbor, Uzbekistan, over the distribution of water in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan, known as the “water tower” of Central Asia, due to the simple fact that it is the source of most of the region’s fresh water (much of it glacier-fed), is a choke-point in the neighborhood, and Russia’s overt move to support the country over its neighbors could have unforeseen security implications.

Climate change threatens to place an even greater strain on these tensions. Its projected impact on glacial melt in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia could further limit the supply of water in an already stressed region. As we noted previously:

[the] headwaters of many of the area’s transboundary rivers, which relate to no less than eight major hydrological basins in the region, are largely fed by huge glaciers and extensive snow cover in Kyrgyzstan. Any danger to these glaciers and snow cover could severely impact water, food and energy security across a large swathe of Central Asia. Unfortunately, that danger already exists. As stated in a recent UNDP report:

‘…the country’s immense glaciers and snow cover represent a strategic resource for all countries of the region. Yet, this resource is most vulnerable to global warming effects. Shrinking of glaciers and high mountain’s snow surfaces is resulting in water shortages and will potentially lead to problems with agriculture, water sharing and energy in the region’

Russia’s recent bout with extreme heat waves and drought, which has been explicitly linked to climate change by two recent studies, heralds an uncertain water (and food) future for the regional power, which could cause it to place more demands for water and food on countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, who will simultaneously be experiencing their own climate stresses (and thus be less capable of meeting such demands).

The current focus in the region is, understandably, on Russia’s power play, and the eventual U.S. departure. But there are also climatic forces at work that cannot be ignored for much longer. While these climatic drivers will interact with existing tensions and vulnerabilities in ways that are difficult to predict, it will be an imperative for regional and global leaders to prepare for all foreseeable eventualities.

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