Dictators are Bad for the Environment and Other Lessons From Central Asia

LOS ANGELES — Caught between a constant tug-of-war between two of the world’s largest carbon emitters, Central Asia is more consequential in climate discussions now than ever. 

Situated between Russia to the North and China to the East, the Central Asian states find themselves enveloped in geopolitical complexity. Add in oil and natural resource conflicts to the mix, and you get a recipe for climate disaster. 

Russian interests in Central Asia remain unrivaled. In an attempt to maintain his sphere of influence in the critical post-Soviet region, President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy maintains this grip on power, utilizing organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and media influence in his efforts. 

However, in some regards, Russian security interests have seemingly succumbed to Chinese economic pursuits, yielding to initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the domination of Chinese trading investments, which indicate growing Eurasian dependence on these foreign economic injections. 

Along with security and infrastructure, Russian and Chinese interests in the region revolve around a key component: energy. 

Central Asia, stuck between the two regional powers, becomes a critical player in global energy security due to its abundance of oil and natural gas — and perhaps more significantly, because “the bulk of [these]resources are available to international companies to develop.” With giant oil and gas fields like Kazakhstan’s Kashagan and Turkmenistan’s South Yoloten, the Central Asian region is a focal point for a “New Great Game” between two of the East’s most prominent global players.

“Over the last decade, China has replaced Russia as the main destination for Central Asian gas,” explains Simon Pirani of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. As Beijing and Moscow engage in a new form of Central Asian foreign policy — one which involves exploiting natural resources — Russian mega-corporations like Gazprom stand to lose the most against Chinese competitors. However, while Central Asian states export gas for profit, fueling this rivalry between foreign powers in the region, dire environmental consequences emerge. 

The environment, alarmingly, is left vulnerable to corporate exploitation. And although lucrative oil and gas production in Central Asia fuel climate change today, this crisis is also the one leaving the region most incapacitated, vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change and susceptible to the whims of climate catastrophe.

With Putin and Xi’s seats in Glasgow left vacant, all eyes turn to the five Central Asian republics, each of which seems to hold a different cautionary tale for the rest of the world. A look at some of the most imminent environmental challenges in the region reveals a simple truth: Central Asia matters in climate discussions, and it matters now more than ever. 

When Autocracies Pollute: The Emerging Crisis in Turkmenistan

In 2019, researchers made a startling discovery — a huge methane leak in Turkmenistan’s Korpezhe natural gas field, seemingly active for over five years. 

The finding “provided evidence of what climate scientists have long suspected,” Bloomberg reports. “The world has a serious problem with methane emissions from Turkmenistan.” 

With more than eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide, methane leaks like the one documented in 2019 have severe impacts on the climate crisis. According to the International Energy Agency, methane emissions are the second leading cause of global warming. Turkmenistan’s excessive methane emissions are utterly unrivaled in intensity and surpassed only by the United States and Russia — both of which have exponentially larger energy industries and populations than the Central Asian states’. Moreover, Turkmenistan accounted for 30 of the 50 most severe methane releases at onshore oil and gas operations analyzed since 2019 by monitoring firm Kayross SAS. These alarming statistics on Turkmenistan’s methane emissions, one of the key driving factors behind the global climate crisis, paint a dismal picture for the region’s environmental future. 

Though climate activists often criticize Western democracies for their inaction in dealing with climate change, engaging autocratic strongholds like Turkmenistan in climate discussions calls for an entirely different approach. 

Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated and repressive countries globally, second only to North Korea. Under the dictatorship of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, human rights conditions in Turkmenistan have significantly deteriorated — though experts can only speculate, considering visas to the former Soviet Republic regions are extremely difficult to obtain.

In a state as repressive, isolated and autocratic, yet pivotal to climate discussions as Turkmenistan, how do international structures appeal for a response to the climate crisis? 

With no international leverage to exert on this ultra-isolated state or its dictator, there is little foreign powers can do to engage Ashgabat in emission reduction efforts. 

Turkmenistan is a cautionary tale for the West, and the rest of the world, about the dangers of repressive governments. No matter how isolated, the domestic political circumstances of a country are bound to puncture the international sphere, reaching every corner of our increasingly globalized world. If global powers continue turning a blind eye to the gross human rights violations within the borders of non-democracies, how long until another Turkmenistan emerges? 

When abandoning democratic and human rights commitments abroad in exchange for petrodollars, global players have a lot to consider. Perhaps next time, the scales will tip in favor of humanity and not realpolitik. 

Because left to their own devices, dictators are very, very bad for the environment. 

The South Aral Sea and Post-Mortem Soviet Legacy 

The Soviet legacy remains alive and well in many parts of Central Asia today. Though cultural and political remnants pulsate most strongly throughout the region, further reinforced by contemporary Russian soft power, the legacy of the USSR is far-reaching, multifaceted and all-encompassing. The Soviets managed to leave their mark on the environment, too. 

Along with authoritarianism and an atrocious human rights record, Uzbekistan inherited the devastating impacts of one of the most catastrophic environmental policy failures of the Soviet Union: ill-fated irrigation schemes, which now leave the Aral Sea, one of the largest inland seas in the world, dried up. 

Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral Sea “has now shrunk by more than 90 percent of its size,” a catastrophe characterized as “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” and widely recognized as a man-made crisis. 

Soviet-era environmental policy saw the building of irrigation projects and the rerouting of the Aral Sea’s source rivers. Briefly delving into the history of the Aral Sea region, the lake’s resources gave rise to a booming fishing industry in the 1960s. As part of the Soviet Union’s efforts to promote cotton growth and agriculture, the Aral Sea’s two primary sources were diverted to canals at the expense of water supply in the lake. However, these efforts proved largely unsuccessful, with up to 75% of the water in the poorly-built canals ending up wasted or in the desert. 

In addition to Soviet-era irrigation projects, which continued drastically shrinking the lake into the 21st century, the ecosystem of the Aral Sea and the surrounding land was devastated by the use of toxic pesticides, increased water salinity, the testing of weapons and fertilizer run-offs, among other human-created issues. 

And its damage today extends well beyond the scope of the environment. This man-made, Soviet-sized disaster where a flourishing freshwater lake once flowed poses grave challenges to the people in the South Aral Sea region. 

Though Kazakh efforts were remarkably successful in reviving the North Aral Sea, across the border in Uzbekistan the situation is much direr. For a variety of reasons, not least of which being Uzbekistan’s crippling economic dependence on cotton production, similar efforts in restoring the South Aral Sea have failed. As a result, the people living in and around the Aral Sea area in Uzbekistan face the consequences of the actions of governments both past and present. 

Uzbeks living in the area suffer from health problems related to pollution and shrinking water supply, including respiratory illness, lung disease and high cancer rates. In addition, the dramatic reduction in the size of a major water source in the region has led to adverse climate impacts, changing temperatures and the phenomenon of salt storms which, quite literally, choke inhabitants of the area. Moreover, Uzbekistan’s reliance on cotton production leads to depleting water resources and quality, forced labor in cotton fields and a perpetuating cycle of poverty for people in the region.

If not for human intervention, the Aral Sea and those who depend on it for survival would have been spared the devastating impacts of a Soviet-era policy that leaves the once-thriving lake a sad remnant of what it once was. 

As world leaders congregate in Glasgow to engage in climate discussions, the Aral Sea disaster should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. If not for Central Asia’s consequential role in the greater Eurasian region and humanitarian concerns, then at the very least, as a grave reminder: when humans meddle with nature, dire consequences emerge. 

And it won’t be long until climate change escalates into an Aral Sea-level crisis. Except this time, on a global scale. 

The time to act was decades ago. Climate change will continue to be a threat whether we’re ready to face it or not. 

Finger on the Climate Trigger: Tajikistan’s Melting Glaciers

In Central Asia, 60% of all water sources originate in the glaciers of Tajikistan.

Temperatures in the country have become 15% hotter over the last 70 years. Today, 1000 of Tajikistan’s glaciers are in danger of melting and up to 30% will shrink or disappear completely by 2050. 

Numbers tell a story. And in the case of Tajikistan, it’s a grim one.

Driven by carbon emissions and human developments in the industrial age, climate change puts the entirety of Central Asia, and the world, at risk. Glaciers are melting at an alarmingly fast rate, posing a grave threat to Tajikistan’s environmental and humanitarian landscape, the latter of which relies on these water sources for survival. 

In the long-term, water shortages and retreating glaciers like the Fedchenko glacier, which has lost more than 30 km of its area in the last three decades, are a serious concern for Tajikistan and the region. Moreover, the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Program in Central Asia warns that “if the temperature [in Tajikistan]rises at the same pace, by the end of the century, the region will literally become one of the ‘hot spots’ on the planet.” Short-term threats, however, are another characteristic of the crisis, with mudslides, landslides and river flooding being some of the more imminent risks for civilians. In 2015, for instance, the Khorog landslide in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan transformed the region’s landscape and Barsam Lake area, creating a dangerous environment for the people living there. 

As industrialization, the exploitation of natural resources and technological advancement propel human progress to new heights, climate change rampages some of the most vulnerable regions in the world. With the disparate impacts of the climate crisis on the region, Central Asia needs to be at the forefront of climate discussions — beyond just COP26. 

The critical phenomenon of melting glaciers in Tajikistan and globally is a dire warning of what the world is up against. Environmental impacts will only continue to worsen, and as Central Asia’s main water source depletes, the region is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. 

The retreat of glaciers is irreversible. At this point, there is no going back. The impending crisis in Central Asia rides entirely on what we choose to do moving forward. 

Because Tajikistan’s shrinking glaciers have their finger on the climate trigger — and it looks like they’re ready to pull. 

Looking Beyond COP26 

The Central Asian states, as some of the biggest contributors (and victims) of the climate crisis, hold important lessons for the rest of the world. 

Autocratic governments like the one in Turkmenistan are a threat of the global scale, and their incapacity to engage in international efforts become increasingly dangerous as climate change raises the stakes of global cooperation. The failed environmental policies of governments past leave a legacy which haunts Uzbekistan to this day, highlighting the dangers of careless human intervention in the pursuit of development. 

And if industrialization at the expense of the environment continues at this rate, the cost of human development will prove to be too high. Faced with a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, Central Asia will soon come face-to-face with the effects of Tajikistan’s rapidly disappearing glaciers. 

As world leaders continue engaging in critical climate negotiations at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Central Asia should be at the forefront of these discussions. 

From Turkmenistan, we learn that the role of the West in promoting democracy abroad becomes even more consequential when climate risks emerge, endangering the world at large. Perhaps, democratization efforts are the missing piece of the puzzle in climate negotiations at COP26. Moreover, Tajikistan’s melting glaciers and the South Aral Sea crisis become all-the-more relevant as COP26 targets emissions in efforts to mitigate the consequences of man-made climate change. 

With all the urgency and conviction that this impending threat demands, world leaders must adopt new approaches moving forward, recognizing that both autocracies and democracies share a stake in this plight. 

Because now more than ever, the threat of climate change looms large over our heads. And if the planet’s “last best chance” is reduced to just another point in the long-running list of international failures, what happened in Central Asia may not be so unique to the region anymore. 

The same fate awaits the rest of us, should we choose to tempt it. 

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Mane Berikyan

Mane Berikyan is a Deans Scholar freshman majoring in International Relations and minoring in Russian Area Studies on the pre-law track. On campus, Mane is a fellow at the Global Policy Institute, a student worker at the Institute of Armenian Studies, and is involved in the Society for Women in Law, Trojan Review, and Armenian Students Association. Outside of USC, she currently serves as the Membership Director for the non-profit organization Armenian Engineers & Scientists of America. Her areas of interest include international human rights law, foreign affairs and national security as it pertains to the post-Soviet states and the Middle East.

berikyan@usc.edu