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Melting glaciers threaten livelihoods

Melting glaciers are impacting the livelihoods of many rural Kyrgyz families.
(Gulnara Mambetalieva/IRIN)

The number of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan has dropped by 15 percent over the past 30 years, according to Kyrgyz environmental experts, because of climate change.

"The process of melting glaciers is a very serious problem for Kyrgyzstan because the main water resources are connected first of all with the glaciers," Anna Kirilenko, with the BIOM environmental NGO, told IRIN in the capital, Bishkek.

Kirilenko believed the melting glaciers threatened water supplies. "It turns out that today we have much water, tomorrow we have little. There will be certain imbalances; the behaviour of rivers will be changing. All ecosystems that are located next to mountain ranges will be subject to certain changes," she said.

According to the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea, an inter-governmental organisation established by Central Asian states, 4,2 percent of Kyrgyzstan's territory or about 8,400 sqkm, is covered with glaciers.

A study by T Bolch from the Institute of Cartography, Technical University of Dresden, on glacier retreat and climate change in Northern Tien Shan on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, stated that the melting glaciers in the area corresponded closely with temperature changes.

"Whereas between 1960 and the 1975 a little decrease of the glaciers occurred, the melting increased significantly after the 1970s. The glaciated area decreased 35-40 percent," stated the 2005 report.

A joint report, entitled Global Glacier Changes: facts and figures, by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) released on 1 September said that during the 20th century, glacier area is estimated to have decreased by 25-35 per cent in the Tien Shan.

Photo: Gulnara Mambetalieva/IRIN
15 percent of Kyrgyzstan's glaciers have disappeared over the past 30 years

Impact on agriculture and food security

Specialists said glacier melting would have a severe impact on the agrarian sector and food security. "Indeed, the melting of glaciers will have an effect on the economic and social life of the country," said Kirilenko.

Some farmers were already experiencing the impact.

"I grow tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbages every year. Usually I would have a good harvest and good money, but this year there was sometimes no water from the river coming from the mountains. This year's harvest is all gone because in August for almost two weeks there was no water and all plants died," Asan Torobaev, a small-scale farmer in the southern city of Osh, told IRIN.

Ryskul Usubaliev from the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences (CAIAG) said one of the factors affecting food security was the uneven location of the glaciers.

"Those parts of the country that have fewer glaciers and the largest population will experience shortages of water in the summer irrigation period. Some regions, the western part of Chui valley in particular, are already suffering from such a shortage," said Usubaliev.

This is due to the loss of glaciers in the mountainous regions, he says. Similar scenarios can be observed on the southern slope of Kungey Alatoo Range, where serious degradation of glaciers is taking place. The melting is occurring much faster than in other parts of Kyrgyzstan because the glaciers are located on the southern slope of the ridge, he said.

The UNEP/WGMS report said that in Central Asia (including Kyrgyzstan) glacier degradation is accompanied by increasing debris cover on many glacier termini and the formation of glacier lakes. Such lakes, sometimes also dammed due to glacier surges, have the potential to threaten downstream areas with outburst floods.

The mountain ranges of Central Asia function as water towers for millions of people, the report said. Glacier runoff thereby is an important freshwater resource in arid regions.

Photo: IRIN
Experts say efficient irigation systems are needed

Efficient irrigation needed

However, Murat Koshoev, national coordinator of the LIFE programme and Small Grant Programme of the UN, said food security would be mostly affected by the worn-out irrigation systems and ineffective use of current water resources.

"These [factors] are more important for food security than the melting of the glaciers," he told IRIN.

"We need to make the irrigation systems more effective because a significant part of agricultural products in Kyrgyzstan, especially grain crops, is grown on irrigated lands. The faster we introduce water-saving and water-efficient systems of irrigation, the better we will ensure our food security," said Koshoev.


According to projections by CAIAG, if current climate change trends continue, about 50-70 percent of areas under glaciers in Kyrgyzstan will disappear. This will affect water levels of rivers and consequently water supplies.

Usubaliev said the glaciers of the southern ridges in Fergana Valley would suffer a similar fate because today almost all glaciers on these ridges were on the verge of disappearing.

"The process of glacier melting depends on the climate warming and in order to stop this process it is necessary to take a number of economic measures. Restrictions over the discharges of contaminating agents into atmosphere must be introduced.

"The UN Kyoto Protocol was adopted with such a goal, but, unfortunately, not all countries signed it and support it," said Usubaliev.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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