Maximum cooperation needed to manage glacier melt in Central Asia

Two men working with specialist equipment on a glacier.
Two Kyrgyz researchers fix stakes in the ice with the help of steam drill equipment to help study ablation on the Golubin glacier in Kyrgyzstan. ©M.Hoelzle/University of Fribourg M. Hoelzle

How to meet the needs of Central Asia’s 68 million inhabitants for water while respecting the glaciers overlooking Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan? The SDC’s project is building on voluntary regional cooperation and rigorous scientific monitoring of the changes taking place in the glaciers.

Country/region Topic Period Budget
Central Asia
Sector not specified
Water diplomacy and security
Water sector policy
Water resources conservation
Water sanitation
01.05.2017 - 28.02.2025
CHF  1’478’500

Global warming makes glacier melt inevitable and glacial lakes can pose dangers, but there are also opportunities resulting from this – something that Switzerland knows all too well. That is why in recent years the SDC has been setting up partnerships between Swiss and foreign scientists in order to export its expertise in glacier studies. 

Following on from several research projects implemented in the Andes and in India, the SDC has been working closely with a number of research centres in Central Asia over the last few years.

Vast water reservoirs to cover periods of drought

It is easy to see the contrasting nature of the region encompassing Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. On the one hand, the dry summers mean that efficient irrigation systems are crucial; on the other, there is a chain of mountainous glaciers that act as immense reservoirs of water. For the time being, that is. 

In the long term, the inevitability of the glacier melt means that this ideal water supply can no longer be guaranteed. So because of global warming, the challenge is to set up an effective and visionary cross-border system of cooperation to manage transboundary water resources. In many cases, however, collecting and distributing the available water resources between the Central Asian countries are dictated primarily by national concerns and based on competition.

Political consultations

Things have had to change. After numerous political consultations, the countries concerned saw that it would be opportune to entrust Switzerland with an advisory role in regard to sustainable water resources management in the region. The SDC is translating this role into practice by laying the foundations for improved cooperation at both the political and scientific level. 

In practical terms, it is working to make the exchange of information between the governments more systematic. In order to produce high-quality scientific data, the SDC is also supporting the efforts of a group of researchers from the University of Fribourg whose aim is to provide the latest in training to local glaciologists over the next few years. 

The SDC’s activities fall under the Blue Peace initiative. This was co-initiated by Switzerland and advocates peaceful water management in various regions of the world. In Central Asia the SDC can benefit from a wide network of international and regional partners who are also active in the water sector.

Combating poverty and reducing disaster risks

Ultimately, it is the people living in the region who will see their lives improve – not just because they will be provided with drinking water or water to irrigate their fields, but also because security in the region will increase. When governments decide to cooperate, the risk of conflict diminishes. And as far as the climate is concerned, monitoring the process of glacier melt rigorously will make predicting natural disasters more reliable. 

The SDC has been working for more than two decades on an integrated, transparent and needs-based water resources management in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, three priority countries for Swiss cooperation with Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The current project and the significant momentum in cross-border cooperation in the region are expected to create real progress for the local populations and their prospects for a better life.

View of the Golubin glacier.
The Golubin glacier close to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek currently covers an area of 5.5 km2 compared to the 86 km2 Aletsch glacier in Switzerland. © M. Hoelzle/University of Fribourg