Four hours later and I was starting to appreciate the benefits of equine travel. As my horse negotiated the rugged terrain in his ill-fitting shoes, I was free to absorb the scene around me. Giant firs cloaked the valley’s western flank, while a tower of sheer granite loomed to the east. At the end of the gorge we bathed, momentarily, beneath an ice-cold waterfall before mounting our steeds and cruising over the final mountain pass.
Only they refused to travel the final stretch – a 300 metre, near-vertical climb to the base of Glacier No.182. I was travelling with a group of eight Kyrgyz scientists from the Central Asian Institute for Applied Geology who were eager to start their research the following day. With nightfall soon to descend upon the mountains we had no choice but to drag the stubborn beasts to our destination – I would rather have carried the backpack.
After a tranquil night camped beneath the stars, we launched our ascent of the glacier where the team – lead by Dr Ryskul Usubaliev – would calculate the volume of ice that had been either lost or gained from the glacier system over the course of the year. For more than a mile we navigated a wall of precariously placed boulders – some larger than cars – which quivered under foot. These rock glaciers are common companions to their better known cousins, formed from debris as the ice retreats over hundreds of years.
At 3,700 metres we finally reached the ice, where we installed our first ablation pole. We then continued to its peak at 4,260 metres, installing a pole every 100 metres. ‘Four other journalists have tried to come with us to measure the size of these glaciers,’ said Dr Usubaliev after the final pole had been fixed. ‘All the others turned back before they reached the ice, and they were men.’
Breaking down gender stereotypes had not been an intended outcome of this journey across Kyrgyzstan – a deeply patriarchal society – yet one I proudly accepted. Though perhaps this specific achievement was tempered by the fact these glaciers were getting smaller year-on-year. The equilibrium point for Glacier No.182 – the altitude where the volume of ice lost is equal to the volume of ice gained – was only 60 metres below its peak. Beneath this height, ice was simply disappearing.
With a higher rate of ablation than accumulation, Dr Usubaliev gave Glacier No.182 a life expectancy of just 70 years. In fact, Central Asia could loose a third of its glaciers within the next 30 years as the region experiences some of the most intense levels of global warming on our planet.
‘If the glaciers disappear then of course there will be a water shortage in Kyrgyzstan, especially during the summer months when we receive less precipitation and our crops and vegetation depend on glacial meltwater,’ said Dr Usubaliev. ‘If the climate continues to change at the current speed then there will be water shortages for sure, and it will affect all of Central Asia.’
And so began my 1,000 kilometre journey across Kyrgyzstan to discover how climate change is impacting water security in this fragile region. Starting on the top of Glacier No.182 (any of the 9,000 Kyrgyz glaciers would have sufficed) I intended to follow the watershed to the most southerly point irrigated by its meltwater, crossing the mountain pastures where semi-nomadic shepherds graze their cattle and the agricultural heartlands that supply fruit and vegetables to the entire country. I’d be travelling with two colleagues – Aibek Adigineev, a multi-talented entrepreneur from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and Fearghal O’Nuallain, creator of the online educational resource The Water Diaries.
Our third night was spent drinking whisky with Adis and Sultanat – shepherds of just 19-years-old who felt unqualified to comment on the changing climate. We awoke to find a dead goat and three missing horses outside our tent. A wolf had attacked and in our intoxicated slumber, managed to source its dinner just metres from our head. We set off on foot to locate the horses, which were growing more tiresome by the day, and miraculously found them among the endless valleys and forests.
Luckily, the stream that was now meandering its way through the landscape introduced us to Moambek, a 33-year-old shepherd who whistled and warbled at a flock of sheep as they reluctantly bathed in the water. Moambek has seen nearly every sunrise and sunset over the Kurumduk Valley since the age of four, when he first learned to breed cattle with his father. Unlike most pastoralists who retreat to the villages at summer’s end, Moambek braves all four seasons in the mountains.
This year, the spring rains failed to revive the golden pastures as they emerged from the icy clutches of winter. Three months into a drought and the grass was little more than dust. If the arid conditions endured then Moambek feared that his smaller yaks – already bearing the signs of hunger – would perish. Kyrgyz culture has long observed the wild rhythms of nature. Yet it is a way of life that is unprepared for the forthcoming changes. Reduced rain at higher elevations will continue as temperatures rise, and the World Bank estimates that up to half of Kyrgyzstan could be affected by desertification by the end of the century.
To emphasise the scale of environmental degradation suffered this year, Moambek offered to take us to Kol Suu, a nearby lake hidden among the rocky canyons. It is enclosed by a natural dam which, once climbed, reveals a vast lake bed of cracked earth that weaves its way among the granite cliffs for 15 kilometres.
‘Usually in the summer months the lake is full of water that is so clear that it has an emerald glow. If you were to take a photograph it would look just like a postcard, it is so beautiful. But last year it didn’t snow enough on the glaciers, that is why there is no water,’ said Moambek, who first discovered the lake ten years ago and had never seen it in such a desperate situation.
After leaving Moambek’s yurt camp we descended upon a dusty path until we joined a road that ran parallel to the Naryn river. Here, we swapped our horses for the generosity of passersby, and rarely waited long with our hands outstretched into the road.
Somewhere near Toktogul we were picked up by two Russians who were playing a vulgar Ukrainian song on repeat. The CD player was the only modern feature of their car, a relic from the Soviet era with an otherwise skeletal interior. As we sped down a highway etched into the cliff, it swayed rhythmically from one side of the road to the other. After a long standoff with Sergei – our driver – we finally stopped to find that the back wheel barely attached to its axle. There are many risks to travelling across Kyrgyzstan – the terrain, the climate, wolves – but none as treacherous as car travel. We would pass the wreckage of three cars on our journey south, and had narrowly escaped becoming one of them.
Eventually the mountains gave way to fields and the Naryn river. Our companion for two days, it was split into a network of cracked and crooked canals that twisted their way across the landscape. The sun was relentless, and for three hours we festered inside an overcrowded marshrutka – the ubiquitous Central Asian minibus – before making our escape near the village of Kok Tal.
As we walked towards a cluster of adobe buildings we saw a lone figure crouched above the fields. Harvest season was drawing to a close, yet hundreds of onion bulbs lay discarded on the ground. As for the rest of Nazira Eshmatova’s yield they were too small to sell in the market. Her cotton plants had refused to flower at all. An irrigation canal looped its way around the fields, but amid soaring temperatures and heightened demand, it had not seen water for weeks.
‘This summer has been really hot and there is a water shortage. The land is drying up and our crops are not doing very well,’ explained Nazira. ‘My sons in Moscow have to send me the money to buy fertilisers otherwise I would not be able to afford it. These are the conditions we have to work in.’
In this corner of Kyrgyzstan, it is often women who are found cultivating land in the 40 degree heat. Local officials say that recurrent drought has forced 20-30 per cent of the male population to find work abroad, unable to sustain a living in a region dominated by agriculture. ‘If it gets any hotter then even more people will have to go to Russia to find work,’ said Nazira as she retreated to the village clutching a mere handful of ripe onions.
We met another female farmer in a village north of Jalalabad, but Aziza was not a farmer by choice. Four years earlier her husband stumbled into the family home and collapsed upon the floor, the colour drained from his weathered cheeks, his black hair matted with congealed blood.
As an ethnic Uzbek in a village dominated by Kyrgyz, he was often the final landowner to receive irrigation water. A set amount is allocated to each village on a daily basis and diverted using hand-operated dams to the various farms that belong to the community. It is a system that is built on trust and fails through corruption. It was during a particularly hot summer that Aziza’s husband paid the head of their Water Users Association to secure a place higher in the queue, stoking the ire of his neighbour.
‘He told my husband that we must give them the water first because it does not belong to us,’ she recalled, wiping a tear from her cheek. A fight broke out and her husband was attacked with a spade. He died of blood loss before he could reach the hospital. ‘There are a lot of problems here related to water, but he was killed because of nationalism,’ said Aziza, who asked that we change her name for fear of reprisal.
Aziza and Nazira both live in the Fergana Valley – 8,500 square miles of fertile ground that is shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Almost a quarter of Central Asia’s population live in the valley, attracted to its unusual agricultural productivity. It was once a unified entity, but under Stalin a process of delineation began that created ethnolinguistic divisions where none had existed before. The result is a twisted knot of contested borders, rural enclaves and multi-ethnic villages that often share one water supply and occasionally erupt into violence.
We heard rumours that a conflict had recently occurred in a Kyrgyz village that is awkwardly wedged between Tajikistan and its enclave Vorukh. We followed the whispers until we arrived in Ak Sai. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon. Children commanded the streets with oversized bicycles and the elderly gossiped on public benches. But Ak Sai was suspiciously quiet.
We found some local government officials who deflected my questions until finally they admitted that the neighbouring villages feud over land and water. As an enclave, Vorukh has little opportunity for expansion but it does hold the keys to a water reservoir that supplies villages in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Having overstayed our welcome at the government office we continued to explore. Most residents threw us a cursory glance before turning their backs. One of its more friendly members offered us apples but retreated when we asked about Vorukh, pointing nervously at the army base positioned in the centre of town. Eventually a group of men invited us into their garden.
While relations between the two towns are usually amicable, one week earlier two Kyrgyz border guards were kidnapped by their Tajik counterparts after a dispute over who could access the mountain pastures. ‘We argue over land and water, that is just what life is like here,’ said our host, Mashrap Toichiev. ‘The problems all started after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the Tajiks try to torture the Kyrgyz people by turning off our water pipes. If the water stops running then the young men fight, they gather together, they block the roads and they throw rocks at each other. They also fight over land.’
Having retired from agriculture 18 years earlier, Mashrap couldn’t comment on whether the tensions were exacerbated by a dwindling water supply. But he does remember a time when he could look south and see glaciers carrying the weight of the skies above them. Now they are pierced by sharp peaks of naked rock, the glaciers having retreated. Two weeks after we left, the attempted installation of a water pump that would give the Kyrgyz residents access to their own source of water forced a hundred men to clash on the streets.
With only the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan before us, it was time to start the 750 kilometre bus ride back to Bishkek and to contemplate the fate of those that depend upon the Naryn river and its tributaries. Halfway through this relentless journey I glanced from my window to see a 120 metre feat of engineering impeding the river’s flow. Through their dams, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan hold rule over the two largest rivers in Central Asia. A diplomatic fallout with downstream Uzbekistan has so far been evaded, but with inter-communal tensions already rising along Kyrgyzstan’s southern frontier, perhaps it is only a matter of time until this collision of geography, climate and politics turns Central Asia into a crucible of human conflict.
This was published in the March 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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