In the summer of 2021, record high temperatures scorched Central Asia. Distressing videos and news showed livestock dying on pastures in the western provinces of Kazakhstan due to water shortages and lack of natural feed. Protests erupted in the northern region of Kyrgyzstan as farmers demanded water to irrigate their crops. Food prices continued to increase in Uzbekistan as the onset of drought led to harvest losses and limited supply of seasonal vegetables. Coupled with the impact of COVID-19 on the agrifood supply chains, these countries are struggling to get back on track for a sustainable socioeconomic recovery.
Agriculture has always played a significant role in the development of North and Central Asian countries. While agriculture’s share of the gross domestic product has decreased over the years, the sector still employs a significant share of the workforce. In these countries, the agricultural value-added has been stagnant in recent years and there has been limited structural transformation within the sector. Despite successes in agriculture product diversification and facilitating trade openness, the sector is still plagued by inefficient water use and outdated machinery and technology. The changing climate conditions – highlighted by the record-high temperatures this past summer – require the sector to adapt, but adaptation has not been quick enough due to structural limitations.
The agriculture sector is not just a victim of challenges related to climate change, but also a perpetrator. Overexploitation of water and water contamination exacerbates the water stress situation in the subregion. This does not bode well for a subregion with increasing demand for water resources as a result of economic development and population growth. Water will increasingly become a source of dispute as the water sources dry up. Additionally, the agriculture sector is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Central Asia, accounting for 27 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. As countries seek to meet their emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, urgent action is required to realign practices in the agriculture sector with the principles of sustainable development and minimizing its carbon footprint.
The recent high temperatures and their effect on the agrifood system also underscores the interdependence of food, water and energy security in Central Asia. In response to the effects of drought affecting crop and livestock production in Kazakhstan, the country initiated an agreement with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for water supply. In exchange, Kazakhstan will provide these countries with fossil fuels. Given the transboundary nature of water in landlocked Central Asia, a fine balance needs to be struck between water demand for agrifood production and for hydroelectricity generation. Climate change considerations need to be factored in as well.
Countries in the subregion also need to adapt better water, crop and land management practices in the agriculture sector. The water management infrastructure needs to be upgraded and modernized to prevent waste. Incentives need to be provided for farmers to introduce water-saving technology such as drip irrigation systems or to switch to crops which require less water. Enhanced fertilizer management and conservation tillage can also offer great greenhouse gas emission reduction potential at relatively low cost. It is also important to restore degraded land and cultivate organic soils into productivity through methods such as rotational grazing and alteration of forage composition.
As emphasized by the Paris Agreement and the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26), countries need to work together to secure global net zero emission levels. Central Asian countries, having ratified the Paris Agreement, need to cooperate and urgently seek alternative solutions in the food-water-energy nexus which can help countries adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.