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Scenario thinking and the water-energy-food nexus in Central Asia

The Syr Darya, the longest river in Central Asia, is shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the Soviet era, the management of the river and surrounding lands was the responsibility of the central planning authority, which placed a great emphasis on agricultural development. It devised the 'Aral Sea Plan' to transform the region into the cotton belt of the Soviet Union and invested in vast irrigation projects, which doubled agricultural production between 1960 and 1990 (FAO, 2012c). A common power grid linking Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan optimized agricultural production, and the distribution and use of energy in the region. 

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, this basin-wide management approach to water, energy and agriculture was replaced by uncoordinated competition between upstream and downstream countries. Regional trade of energy and agricultural products collapsed as countries prioritized self-sufficiency over economic cooperation. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose energy security and economic development relies on hydropower, now operate upstream reservoirs predominantly for meeting peak demand for heating in the winter. Water discharges from upstream dams are therefore higher in winter months, which limits access to water for irrigation downstream during growing season. Water shortages in the summer also affect Uzbekistan’s thermal power plants downstream, which use Syr Darya water for cooling (Figure 1).

Recent climate projections indicate that climate change will aggravate this inter-annual imbalance in demand and supply (Unger-Shayesteh et al., 2013). With the predicted continuation of temperature increases and related evapotranspiration, the melting of glaciers will cause a gradual decrease in the volume of water stocked at the source. Long-term changes in snow cover have been observed in the Central Asian Mountains. This includes an ongoing shift towards earlier snowmelt, which has caused slow progressive changes in regional hydrology.

Figure 1. Map of selected elements of the water-energy-food nexus in the Syr Darya Basin: water bodies, power plants, irrigated areas, water supply and withdrawals for agriculture

At the same time, the extensive agricultural development during the Soviet era has had drastic environmental consequences, with the shrinking of the Aral Sea being the most well-known. Unsustainable practices in irrigation and drainage in lowlands have also led to widespread soil salinization, which has caused serious declines in soil fertility and waterlogging. Upstream parts of the basin are now particularly affected by erosion. These land management issues are closely linked to broader governance processes in the basin, and as such, need to be addressed within the broader landscape.

Given these complex and interlinked challenges, FAO has joined forces with the Executive Committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (EC-IFAS) and the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia (UNRCCA) to carry out a scenario-thinking exercise. The exercise brought together representatives from different ministries from the affected countries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stakeholders from sectors concerned with water, energy, agriculture and environment.

The idea behind the scenario-thinking approach is to bring together a broad range of stakeholders to develop a joint landscape level vision for the basin. It is designed as a long-term process during which participants have opportunities to consider, discuss, clarify, agree and disagree, revisit issues and ideally, arrive at a common vision. The scenario-thinking approach helps foster mutual understanding and trust among participants and creates common ground for change.

In the scenario-thinking approach, scenarios are not forecasts, projections or predictions as is often the case in planning processes. Instead, scenarios are treated as various plausible, alternative futures identifying what might happen, which can be used to help to assess and rethink multisector policy in a changing environment. They can provide reasonable and consistent answers to the 'what if' questions of policy. In the Syr Darya basin scenario development process, (see Figure 2) different uses, functions and interactions of land, water and energy in the basin were mapped out to better understand the impacts they have on each other now and will have in the future.

Figure 2. Current Nexus interlinkages in the Syr Darya Basin

In the resulting vision for Central Asia, some of the key issues affecting the development of the basin were the development of regional cooperation, geopolitics, population movement (i.e. migration of rural population and agricultural workers) and climate change. The scenario–thinking exercise was followed up by a collabortive effort undertaken by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and FAO to complete a transboundary assessment of the interlinkages between water, energy and agriculture in the basin. The assessment highlighted the benefits for increased cooperation and coordination in the management of water, energy and land resources, and ecosystem services. This will become increasingly important as the climate changes, as interlinked use of resource will become more problematic with more extreme weather conditions and long-term declines in water availability. Further details can be found in the 2015 UNECE report, Reconciling resource uses in transboundary basins: assessment of the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus.