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11 December 2009

REGION: Cleo Paskal: When you look in climate change the impact is so regional that you must really understand what's happened locally

According to Cleo Paskal, Associate Fellow for the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at Chatham House, London as Copenhagen summit on climate change draws near, the governments and civil society organisations of Central Asia have not been encouraging climate change discussions within the countries to address the most important issues at global event. In the interview below she explains why climate change is not high on the agenda of Central Asian countries. She also discusses the different approaches of solution climate change problems by developed countries and developing world and how environmental change may affect regional security and stability in Central Asia and in Kyrgyzstan in particular.

Gulnura Toralieva (GT)?Why do you think the climate change is not in agenda of developing countries and Central Asian region in particular

Cleo Paskal (CP): The climate change was presented by developed world to developing world. They’ve projected their own problems on developing countries without real understanding what issues have importance for people in places like Central Asia. If you talk with somebody in Central Asia about climate change it doesn’t really make much sense. But if you talk with them about agriculture or water security then they understand very clearly what the problems could be. We know for example that Kazakhstan is desertified to about 60 percent and with climate change it could go to about 80 percent and the problems are very clear. And in Central Asia we know that there are problems of water supply and with food security and range of other issues related to environment but what hasn’t been made clear is that climate change will affect existing environmental issues as well.

GT: Who should care about climate change and its environmental impact? Is it a problem of developed countries or developing world?

CP: Central Asia has a very long experience with environmental change. The Aral Sea is a very good example where man-made messing up of the environment has had very severe environmental consequences. Climate change is the component of environmental change. You cannot address climate change alone without addressing other environmental problems as well. They all interconnected. This is first thing. Then there is a question how you handle climate change. It can be handled in two stages. You can mitigate it, you can stop it from accelerating or you can adapt to it. In most cases people talk about mitigation and adaptation. In the case of Central Asia it is very clear that not a lot of mitigation can be done. I mean that economy has already stretched very thin. They have very large existing industrial challenges left over from soviet period. More critical issues for Central Asia are things like radioactive tailings that need to be dealt with and electrical and water systems those very urgently to be dealt with. And if you deal with those they will help to adaptation with climate change. Adaptation was predominantly developed in the developing world. The developing countries have had to adapt to environmental assaults for very long time. The science of adaptation is very advanced in the developing world. The developed world has a lot to learn from developing countries when it comes to adaptation and the developing world really needs to start mitigation.

GT: What are the major social, political and economic implications of climate change on developing countries security?

CP: The developing countries are not one country. Each country has its own challenges and each region of each country has its own challenges. And that is the problem with environmental change that it is not one problem it is a million problems. If you in a coastal area the problem could be flooding, it could be salt water getting into your fresh water system, if you in a dry area or desert area it could be even dryer or dust storms, if you are in mountain region it could be erosion or glacier melting. So there may be many-many different sorts of problems and it will take many-many different sorts of solutions. And I would encourage people in the developing world who have found local solutions and there are some very good local solutions to build bridges to other developing world countries to see what you could learn from each other. Often the solutions found in the developing world are inexpensive, law-tech, very efficient. And those are the sorts of things which will be needed globally but can be developed, implemented and expanded through developing world quite easily right now.

GT: Kyrgyzstan the country where I’m from has serious environmental problems such as huge toxic waste, caused by radioactive production dumps. As most of the uranium tailing sites are located in densely populated and natural-disaster prone areas of Central Asia's largest river basins, they represent a major potential risk to the region's water supply and the health of millions of people. The problem is exacerbated by frequent rainfalls caused landslides in the very near of uranium dumps. If it is a consequence of climate change what can you suggest to do to mitigate the negative impacts to prevent the catastrophe?

CP: What you are talking about is a very serious issue and gets even worse because Kyrgyzstan is also in seismic zone and there is evidence that climate change might create more seismicity as glacier melting takes weight off certain areas and puts it on others and that can create more seismic movements. Heavy precipitation can also get into fissures and cracks and create sort of build up a pressure and create more seismicity. In many different ways apart you’ve just mentioned climate change can, as you said, exacerbate existing problems. The first step is really understand the problem, to do a real good ground level survey what existing waste dumps are, for example and what is likely climate change projected for the region will be. In the case of Kyrgyzstan you have very good survey from Soviet administration, have good scientists domestically and there are good Russian scientists in the country who have left. And I would encourage building bridges with all the scientists who have left to try to make sure you have all accurate data available. Files may disappear, they may go to Moscow. You really need to know what is happened in your country in order to start figure out how to move forward in a sustainable and safe way. In science people tend to work in their own areas. So the people who work in radioactive tailings may or may not to have been spoken to people working in climate change or in hydrology or whatever.

GT: In one of your publications you stated that climate change may affect the stability and security of some regions. It even may have negative impact on security of the most stable regions. What can you say about Central Asian region?

CP: It is a funny thing that people talk about Central Asia as it is one homogenous country with one homogenous environment. As you know there are many different people and there are many environmental situations. Some countries have a lot of water, some countries have no water. Some countries close to Afghanistan, some are close to China. I mean that it is not one country. So challenges will be very different. There are commonalities obviously but when you looking in environmental change as mentioned before the impact is so regional that you must really understand what is happened locally. The other thing about central Asia is its neighbours. The countries that are neighbouring China will start to get and already have in fact seen an increase influence of China. China has very severe environmental problems. It has no enough water or enough food for its own population. So it will look to Siberia or appropriate countries in Central Asia to secure food and possibly water supply. When China goes into the country it is likely it wants to ensure a degree of political control. That can affect your security situation. Environmental change may also affect the security situation in the very basic level if there is no enough food and enough water for the local population. Across the board from each part of the region from the top to the bottom there are potential areas where the security can be compromised. We used to think about Central Asia firstly as a part of Soviet Union but it really is an important component of global balance that is focused in a very volatile area with Afghanistan, Russia, and China and in a certain degree India also.

GT: What can Central Asian countries and Kyrgyzstan in particular address at global climate change conference in Copenhagen in the coming December?

CP: Kyrgyzstan hasn’t accurate understanding of its own problem and figuring out what it needs to address those problems and to ensure that those needs are met is very important. And it is in the interest of the developed world for the developing world to be as stable as possible. And if developing world can clearely state this is what we need then that will be very helpful to create a global stability.

GT: The Central Asian states cannot find ways for integration and have many disagreements on energy and water sharing issues. The soviet energy system united all 5 regional states doesn’t suit interests of all countries. Upstream and downstream countries always have a room for being unsatisfied by each other’s policy. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan stated recently that they are going to leave the soviet made system. Most of the countries work on development their own energy systems and find ways to be independent. But it is very expensive and in some ways not possible. What is your view of this problem? What kind of implications does this situation have on regional stability?

CP: It is a very serious problem. In fact there are many serious problems. When the Soviet Union fell apart it left Central Asia with three legacies, with three different problems which made unification or regional stability a little difficult. One is that infrastructure was designed for a whole not just for a regional whole but a pan soviet whole. So the actual physical infrastructure was designed to be able to enforce cooperation even if it really doesn’t make sense. The legal infrastructure has the similar problem. And the most obvious example is the borders, which divide tribes and language groups. I just make an example of how inherit legal infrastructure can cause problem which come to water and power sharing agreements. Third is that Central Asian countries start to get real cultural polarisation and social fragmentation and then it becomes difficult to get over and it makes all the things more difficult. There is no feeling that you are altogether. That’s why countries might think why I should deal with this country, if I have nothing common except the ancient history. Why cannot I deal with China or Russia instead? Social cohesion kind of comes first. If social cohesion starts break apart, all the relations become difficult. The existing system has some very serious problems. It is old, it hasn’t been properly maintained and was designed for different environment. When you build such constructions you make environmental assessments: how much water is in the rivers, how much rainfalls and so on and you look to the last 50 or 100 years to make those calculations. Those calculations no longer mean anything. Next 50-100 years are probably be very different than last years. That hydro installation you built which has perfect sense in 1980 may already make no sense today because of increase saltation, changing of precipitation, glacier runoff. The existing infrastructure you have may be severely affected by the environment. There is no sense that old built infrastructure could be suitable to new environment. The question is in designing the new infrastructure are they taking into account the environmental change. Or they designed it in the same way as they always design it. I suspect they don’t take environmental change into account. I’m not sure that this infrastructure will be able to deliver. It is very important to take into account environmental change for both new and old infrastructure.

Source: Gulnura Toralieva, London specially for CARNet

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