How will climate change affect Kazakhstan's harvest in years to come? The British Council's Rowan Kennedy joins a Kazakhstan-UK research expedition to find out.
'I’ve lost count of the number of papers I’ve started with the phrase "glaciers are an early warning system for global warming"’ says Maria Shahgedanova, Associate Professor in Climate Science at the University of Reading.
We are 3,500 metres up in the Tien Shan mountains above the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, at the foot of the Tuyuk Suu glacier. Maria and her Kazakhstani colleague Igor Severskiy are leading a joint Kazakhstan-UK research team studying the effects of climate change on water resources and crop production in Kazakhstan.
Agriculture accounts for nine per cent of Kazakhstan’s GDP, and provides 25 per cent of national employment. In the north of the country, large-scale grain production (launched by Krushchev’s Virgin Lands programme) dominates – making Kazakhstan one of the world’s largest grain exporters. In the south, thousands of small household farms supply produce for local consumption.
Particularly in the south, yields in both areas are dependent on run-off from the seasonal melt of snow pack and glaciers in the Tien Shan – which are retreating rapidly. The research station I visited was established in 1957 at the base of the glacier itself. Today, you have to climb nearly a kilometre up the moraine to reach the place where the ice starts.
Existing climate models suggest that droughts will become more frequent in the future as glaciers and snow pack continue to shrink. Water sources will become scarcer, with knock-on effects on harvests. However, it is also possible that higher winter temperatures, increasing cold-season precipitation and CO2 fertilisation will offset the negative effects of retreating snow pack, caused by the increasing spring and summer temperatures.
The real problem is that no-one knows what the true effects of climate change will be on Kazakhstan’s harvests, and how to prepare for them. The research being carried out by Maria and her international team is therefore hugely important in helping to ensure food security for Kazakhstan’s population in the coming decades.
UK science has a strong reputation here, and is well-covered in the media. There is a standing joke among Kazakhstanis, one I’ve heard often since I came to Almaty, that you can precede any assertion with the words ‘British scientists have proved that…’ and people will believe it.
But the research is not about the UK dictating answers to a problem. Through collaboration between the University of Reading and three partner institutions in Kazakhstan, through joint publications and through post-docs and PhD students travelling between institutions, this project will increase knowledge and awareness of the effects of climate change, help Kazakhstan build its own research capacity, and train Kazakhstani experts to help the country offset the negative effects of climate change.
The development impact for Kazakhstan will be significant. There is strong evidence that the frequency of extreme climate events is increasing – and we know that these often hit the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society hardest. Agricultural workers, for example, are among the lowest-paid in all professions in Kazakhstan.
But armed with the data and models produced by Maria, Igor and their colleagues, a new generation of skilled, internationally experienced researchers will be equipped to predict the impact of climate change, develop adaptation and mitigation strategies, and build resilience in the agricultural sector – thereby improving prospects for some of Kazakhstan’s most vulnerable citizens.
The joint Kazakhstan-UK research project is supported by an Institutional Links grant from the Newton Fund and the British Council.
Find out how to apply for an Institutional Links grant by 28 September 2015, which supports research and innovation between the UK and partner countries.