BY CHLOE CRAIG
Kyrgyzstan, a country known for its sweeping mountain landscapes, expansive forests, and traditional agricultural communities, is experiencing an environmental crisis of unprecedented severity. In the capital city of Bishkek, home to nearly one sixth of Kyrgyzstan’s total population, alarming levels of smog pollution have begun to pose serious health risks. The most significant contribution to this air pollution is made by the 400,000 cars that are driving on streets built to accommodate a fraction thereof. In addition, Kyrgyz households rely heavily on coal as a source of energy, creating smaller-scale household pollution. Smoke and exhaust particles are then held in heavy concentration over the city by the towering buildings that block air flow, creating a hazardous living environment for the city’s residents.
While urban Kyrgyz are concerned about air quality, the rural regions of Kyrgyzstan are experiencing similar anxiety over their environmental situation. A massive increase in large-scale agriculture has resulted in an escalation of damaging practices including failure to rotate crops, livestock overgrazing, and use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Such practices degrade the land over time, decreasing productivity and eventually making certain areas unusable. Furthermore, as a handful of profitable high-yield crops are favored over the traditional wide diversity of crops, biodiversity in Kyrgyz forests is declining, creating an additional threat to the long-term natural productivity of the Kyrgyz landscape.
The history of unsustainable living in Kyrgyzstan can be traced back to approximately 1926, when the region became known as the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. At this point, the Kyrgyz Republic became integrated into the Soviet Union’s state economy and was made subject to stringent central planning policies. Traditional subsistence-based farms and pastures were transformed into large collective farms, whose production targets and farming techniques were strictly controlled. As a consequence of this inflexible management, knowledge that had been held for generations by Kyrgyz pastoralists was ignored and considered irrelevant, allowing agricultural malpractice to flourish. At the same time, as a result of the 1930s push to industrialize under Stalin, people were forcibly relocated to cities and the economy was artificially skewed in favor of industrial production, thus creating the ongoing situation of problematically dense urban populations.
Both the Kyrgyz government and people recognize the critical nature of domestic pollution, and are working to make corrective changes. The Union of Architects of Kyrgyzstan is pushing to temporarily halt the construction of new buildings in central Bishkek until conditions improve. In addition, the Union emphasized that urban buildings should not exceed seven stories. This recommendation had already been established some time ago, but has long been ignored in response to high population demands in the capital city. Earlier this year, the Kyrgyz government submitted a proposal to the Eurasian Economic Union to remove tariffs on electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are currently a rarity in Kyrgyzstan due to the prohibitively high cost; however, this tariff reduction is expected to successfully increase demand for such vehicles. Finally, Kyrgyzstan is actively pushing to expand gas pipelines in its cities, hoping to reduce the widespread use of coal in homes.
There is widespread support in Kyrgyzstan for these policy reforms, which are likely to have a positive impact. Unfortunately, the scope and timeline are a subject of concern. If Bishkek were to cease all construction today, the actively problematic structures will remain standing. Likewise, people are unlikely to abandon already-purchased gasoline cars even if electric vehicles do become affordable. Furthermore, in order to expand the system of natural gas pipelines and thus modernize their energy infrastructure, Kyrgyzstan is entirely reliant on investment from Russia, which is facing its own series of economic difficulties and has already backed out of major proposed investment projects in Kyrgyzstan once before. The rate at which pollution intensifies will likely slow, but intense investment and restructuring will be required if Bishkek hopes to halt or even reverse existing pollution.
While Kyrgyzstan’s cities are being reformed through policy initiatives, the rural regions have begun developing an entirely different solution based on the redevelopment of pre-Soviet cultural practices. Prior to Soviet expansion, Kyrgyz people lived a nomadic lifestyle based on livestock herding. This lifestyle involved constant movement across the country in accordance with the seasons, ensuring that no given section of land would be subject to constant or excessive use. Additionally, pastoral communities were experts in sustainable agriculture, and thus had no need for pollutants such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This traditional knowledge has not disappeared, but has been scattered and downplayed throughout the turmoil of Soviet influence. During this period, the Soviet Union forcibly relocated thousands of Kyrgyz people to state-owned collective farms in an active attempt to suppress nomadic lifestyles. Families were broken up in this process and generations lost contact with one another. There is ongoing hope that if these connections between young and old Kyrgyz can be restored, then the knowledge required for sustainable living can once again be put to widespread use.
Indigenous communities worldwide are increasingly looking to the revitalization of traditional practices as a solution to environmental degradation. Despite the theoretical promise of these techniques, it is increasingly difficult to transpose 19th century practices into a 21st century environment. Global climate change has created increasingly unpredictable weather and seasons, with unexpectedly heavy rain, late frost and early snow all disrupting patterns of sowing and harvest. Farmers who once were intimately familiar with their land are now suddenly finding themselves in an environment that is not only completely new, but actively changing. Sustainable living in rural communities is based on a balance between crops and livestock. However, as crop yields decline, this balance is being upset in favor of livestock, who are not as susceptible to harsh weather. An overabundance of livestock aggravates the previously discussed issues of land overuse, as grazing and roaming both take a heavy physical toll on the land; however, as long as crops remain unreliable, this is a necessary choice to make in the name of income.
Kyrgyzstan has felt the impact of climate change more strongly than nearly any other country in the world due to its landlocked and mountainous geography. It is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as landslides and flooding, which are destroying productive land and threatening livelihoods at an alarming rate. The economic implications are significant: natural disasters are estimated to cost the Kyrgyz economy between 1.0 percent to 1.5 percent of GDP annually. Furthermore, irrigated agriculture, which makes up about 15 percent of total GDP, is increasingly threatened as the glaciers, which are the country’s most important source of water, are disappearing. Potential economic decline in what is already one of the world’s poorest countries will threaten Kyrgyzstan’s ability to invest in its own sustainable infrastructure. This is likely to deepen dependence potentially unreliable foreign investment from countries such as Russia,leading to increased uncertainty regarding both the amount and quality of future investment in Kyrgyzstan.
Less than three decades after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan is once again falling victim to the destructive actions of foreign states. Kyrgyzstan has one of the world’s lowest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, yet is being destroyed by climate change at a rate far surpassing that of leading greenhouse gas emitters such as the United States, China, the European Union and Russia. Kyrgyzstan has been active in its attempts to strengthen its own capacity to address climate change and work internationally to the same end. Nonetheless, no country can have a unilateral impact on climate change, and least of all a small and low-emitting republic such as Kyrgyzstan. However, if nothing is done, then Kyrgyzstan will continue to face damage not only from global pollution, but from the domestic pollution which is aggravated by the effects of climate change. In the long term, Kyrgyzstan will either need to take on the ambitious task of successfully working with the world’s large industrial countries to encourage more meaningful action, or figure out how to adapt to the reality of global climate change.