Natural Disaster Risks in Central Asia
Bratislava, SLOVAKIA - 24 April 2012 -Central Asia is highly exposed and vulnerable to natural hazards including earthquakes, landslides, floods, mudslides and droughts. Both exposure to natural hazards and the vulnerability of populations, infrastructure, and economies has risen in the last few decades. Over the last ten years, Central Asian governments and the international community have undertaken an increasing number of disaster reduction initiatives to address the risks posed by these factors. However, many of these efforts are based upon a limited understanding of disaster risks.
The study “Natural Disaster Risks in Central Asia: A Synthesis” prepared for the 2011 Central Asian Regional Risk Assessment (CARRA) conference by UNDP, clarifies and outlines the natural disaster risks facing Central Asia. The study offers a baseline analysis for identifying disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate risk management (CRM) interventions in the region. Outlining five distinct issues - exposure, climate change, vulnerability, risk assessments and policy making – it reaches the conclusion that there is substantial work to be done to reduce vulnerability in the region in terms of understanding the risks, as well as addressing them. Many risks are transboundary in nature and can be best analyzed and addressed at regional level.
Correctly understanding disaster risk is a requisite step in developing effective measures to limit the negative effects of disasters when they occur. The main natural hazards affecting Central Asia can be broken up into two distinct categories: geophysical hazards – a function of the geographical make up of Central Asia - and meteorological hazards, which are predominately a result of weather conditions. Geophysical hazards include natural hazards where the principal causal agent is climatic and meteorological (e.g floods and droughts) or geological and geomorphological (e.g. landslides and earthquakes). Examples of meteorological hazards include flooding and mudslides.
Geophysical hazards facing Central Asia are primarily earthquakes and landslides. From the mountainous regions of the Tian Shan to the Karakum Desert, as well as the known fault lines where the Eurasian plate presses against the Indian and Arabian plates, geophysical hazards are a product of the geographic structure of Central Asia.
While being vulnerable to natural hazards in a general sense, not all countries in Central Asia face the same level of risk from earthquakes. The main seismic regions in Central Asia include the Pamir, Tien Shan, Iran-Caucasus-Anatolia region and the Central Kazakhstan region. If we consider the risk of earthquakes, there are countries where the majority of the population lives in areas of high or very high seismic hazard (99.9 percent of the population for Kyrgyzstan, 88.3 percent for Tajikistan and 80.4 percent for Uzbekistan), while in other countries a significant portion of the population lives in areas with seismic hazard levels considered low to moderate (62.2 percent of the population in Turkmenistan and 70.6 percent in Kazakhstan).
Figure 1: Risk of seimic activity in Eurasia (Peak ground acceleration; 10 percent probability of exceedence in 50 year period) Source: Seismic Hazard of Northern Eurasia
All capital cities of the Central Asian republics, excluding Astana, are located in what are deemed to be high to very high hazard areas. They are home to not only to the largest population centres, and therefore responsible for the majority of economic activity, but they also house their countries’ respective governments. In the event of a calamity, not only is there an elevated risk for many people to be injured, there is also a high risk of paralysis in economic activity and a critical slowdown in a government’s ability to function.
However, it is not only capital cities that are at high seismic risk. Among rural areas, the densely populated Ferghana Valley (covering parts of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) is of particular concern. This area represents the most densely populated region in Central Asia, with around 11 million residents. They are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the region.
When earthquakes occur, the most evident economic losses are related to the physical damage to existing infrastructure. They can affect buildings (houses, schools, and hospitals), but also transportation and utilities infrastructure (roads and gas and electricity networks). Less obvious, but equally significant, are the indirect economic impacts, particularly lost manufacturing capacity, crippled distribution channels, diminished revenues, unemployment and a lack of spending in urban areas.
Landslides can be triggered by the increasing steepness of slopes (owing to geological processes), seismic events, mining, increased torrential rainfall as well as rising water tables and continued degradation.
Meteorological hazards in Central Asia primarily include river flooding, flash flooding, drought, hail, strong winds and temperature extremes. They occur with greater frequency than geophysical hazards. Exposure to meteorological hazards in Central Asia must be assessed against a backdrop of rising climate variability and climate change.
The region’s climate has become noticeably warmer. In all countries, average annual temperatures rose by 0.10ᵒC to 0.31ᵒC every ten years, much higher than the global trend (0.06ᵒC). In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the largest increases in temperature have been recorded during the winter periods (0.26ᵒC to 0.44ᵒC per decade), while in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan the most significant changes have been observed in the summer and autumn months. The frequency of extremely hot days (40ᵒC or above) has risen, while the occurrence of abnormally cold days has diminished.
Despite the increase in temperatures in the largest river basins of Central Asia, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the overall amount of water resources has remained fairly stable between 1911 and 2007. However, the annual (and seasonal) hydrological variability in these river basins has become more pronounced.
The majority of notable rivers in Central Asia weave their way in and out of several different countries. These transboundary river systems are regulated by a system of large reservoirs (of up to 19 cubic kilometres in volume) and water diversion structures. Thus, flooding on most large rivers is as much a result of poor operations and maintenance as of hydrological variability. The lack of consensus among Central Asian countries concerning operations and maintenance of transboundary waters has created severe flooding in the downstream areas of the Syr Darya River.
Higher temperatures owing to climate change are also expected to increase the duration of floods and shift the peak flow periods. Current projections reveal a quite alarming situation:
• For rivers supplied by snow and glacier melt: the increase in flood duration is expected to be around 15-20 days, with peak periods occurring 7-10 days earlier;
• For river fed by snowmelt and rainfall: the increase in flood duration is expected to be about 8-10 days, with peak periods occurring 25-30 days earlier.
Increases in the length of flooding and anticipating extended peak periods create uncertainty in agriculture production, requiring cultures to gradually shift and adapt. Although there is a high degree of uncertainty in available outputs of climate and hydrological models, all analyses indicate that runoff and river levels during floods will be higher than at present. Unfortunately, available analyses do not indicate which river basins will be most affected, or when.
The worst consequences of flooding are not exclusive to agricultural production. Drinking water supplies commonly become contaminated and sewage systems become flooded, creating an epidemiological threat.
Geophysical and meteorological hazards exist in nature and in most cases cannot be prevented; however their impact and consequences can be mitigated by reducing the vulnerability of people and infrastructure to natural hazards. Significant loss of life and economic damages could be avoided through reducing vulnerability. Economic, structural and socioeconomic vulnerabilities relate to human constructions and they are the product of flawed development that does not adequately integrate disaster risk reduction.
Economic vulnerability refers to the expected cost of a natural disaster in a particular region. The economies of Central Asia are highly vulnerable to natural disasters. The most recent calculation of this dimension of vulnerability was conducted by United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN ISDR) (Table 1 below). According to the UN ISDR, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are the most vulnerable in terms of the total amount of potential economic losses (in US dollars 2128 million, 1564 million and 1136 million respectively) while Tajikistan has the greatest potential losses relative to GDP (20.9 percent). However, it should be noted that owing to the poor quality of data available, Kyrgyzstan’s economic vulnerability is grossly underestimated. If it could be correctly calculated, in all likelihood it would be higher than in all other Central Asian countries except for Tajikistan.
Several factors heighten the vulnerability of the economies of Central Asia to disasters. Most countries have undiversified, export-dependent economies that are vulnerable to external shocks. State planning, restrictions on economic sectors, as well as trade barriers hamper the ability of the economy and society to manage risks in accordance with specific conditions and needs. Weather-dependent economic sectors account for 40-60 percent of GDP in the Central Asian republics, with agriculture alone comprising 20-30 percent of GDP in most countries. Additionally, a significant proportion of the region’s population resides in rural areas and remains highly dependent on agriculture.
Structural vulnerabilities refer to the damages to infrastructure that would occur in the event of a natural disaster and primarily affect buildings, houses, roads, rail networks, communication networks, energy grids, etc. A strong earthquake is likely to significantly damage buildings in the epicentre and the surrounding areas. According to Geohazards International, if an intense earthquake (9 on the Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik MSK scale) hit a major city in Central Asia, around half of the residential building stock would collapse or be damaged beyond repair (Table 2).
Since 1996, the structural integrity of most buildings has declined, owing to depreciation of the building stock in the region. In the event of an earthquake, it is estimated that in Almaty, Ashgabat, Dushanbe and Bishkek around 20 percent of the population would sustain serious injuries and around 5 percent would be killed. A way to prevent such a disaster would be to improve the quality of the existing buildings and infrastructure; however, due to the scale of investment required, rehabilitation projects funded by international donors can only partially implement the necessary capital repairs.
Socioeconomic vulnerability refers to the inability of people, organizations, and societies to withstand the adverse impacts of natural hazards. Socioeconomic vulnerabilities have a variety of dimensions including, poverty, poor social safety nets and poor municipal planning (Table 3). Persistent poverty and income disparities make communities and social groups less resilient to natural disasters. Income disparities are high, particularly in urban areas, where in general, vulnerability to natural disasters is higher. Poor land use and municipal planning heightens vulnerability to all types of disasters. Land use planning is geared toward optimization and does not account for exposure to hazards. Furthermore, poor households tend to rely heavily on consumption from agricultural production, which makes the impact of meteorological disasters particularly acute.
Inadequate management of disaster protection infrastructure increases the vulnerability of the population. As a consequence, protection structures are less effective against floods and landslides, and dams are more susceptible to potential breaches and outburst floods.
Inefficient planning and operations of water infrastructure is a major factor in flood and drought risks. Within the main cross-boundary river basins of the region, operations of water infrastructure are hampered by disputes over land allocation for agriculture and energy. These disputes and the problems they cause regarding water infrastructures only assist in heightening exposure to floods and hydrological drought.
In the areas of rural development and agriculture, several vulnerabilities contribute to the risk posed by drought and flood hazards. First and foremost, in many countries of the region, off-farm employment lacks the diversification in production to provide backup income options in the event of natural disasters (in particular predominant small farms that don’t maintain soil fertility trough proper crop rotation practice).
Second, the rural financial system constrains credit access and is inadequate for the introduction of financial risk management instruments. Input and market access is also limited, often owing to state control. Moreover, on-farm water management, salinity management and agronomic practices are inappropriate for drought management in many areas, and the collapse of agricultural advisory services (formerly provided by collective farms) hampers dissemination of good practices.
Unsustainable agricultural practices and a lack of rain fed cropland in mountain areas also make it more likely that erosion processes will contribute to mudflows. Finally, overgrazing near villages and wells is widespread, which induces wind erosion and desertification processes in rangeland, thereby rendering them more vulnerable to drought.
Improving Risk Assessment in Central Asia
The lack of in-depth studies on economic, structural, and socioeconomic vulnerabilities in Central Asia makes it difficult to more precisely target interventions and vulnerable geographic regions within specific hazard categories. Beginning with the collection and management of disaster data, several actions are needed to improve targeting for disaster mitigation and prevention, including:
• Harmonizing disaster definitions and classifications, as well as entry criteria and thresholds for inclusion.
• Cross-checking multiple sources of information and establishing procedures for validation.
• Strengthening primary data collection procedures, i.e. post-disaster disaster needs assessment.
• Improving accessibility of data and developing analytical capabilities.
In the realm of vulnerability analysis, there is a need to build capacity in DRR agencies through the provision of specific tools and methodologies. Due to the multitude of sectors and the variety of technical expertise required, the necessary coordination and collaboration among agencies in preparing vulnerability analysis is a challenging task.
Because all disaster risks have cross-boundary dimensions, regional cooperation is integral to addressing these issues. First and foremost it is important to restore regional cooperation in hazard monitoring and analysis, as well as early warning. As a matter of fact, some vulnerabilities, particularly in water management, are aggravated by the lack of cooperation at the regional level.
Conducting in-depth risk assessment and engaging in evidence-based advocacy concerning the common good in addressing hydrological extremes may be an entry point to bring the various parties together. In the realm of preparedness and response, there is considerable scope for cross-border coordination of actions, especially if impediments to the movement of goods and personnel can be overcome.
In general, much work remains to improve risk assessment in the region both for hazards and vulnerabilities. For hazards, there is a need for strengthened monitoring, particularly with regard to meteorological hazards, and bringing together experts to reconcile differences in the analysis of transboundary hazards. This will also require significant investment to replace deteriorated (or missing) equipment.
Finally, to reduce vulnerabilities there is a need to enable a more precise targeting of interventions, to improve datasets on disaster impacts and to conduct specific analyses for various dimensions of vulnerability, particularly the economic and socioeconomic.
Given the impacts expected from climate change, especially in this region, there is an urgent need to heighten the precision of data and projections on exposure to flood and drought hazards, as well as conduct in-depth analysis of present and potential vulnerabilities in agriculture and water management.
 The time frame analysed is 1936 to 2005 for Kazakhstan, 1930 to 2000 for Kyrgyzstan, 1940 to 2005 for Tajikistan, 1931-1995 for Turkmenistan, and 1878-2008 for Uzbekistan. See: Hydrometeorological Service under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 2009, Second National Communication of the Republic of Uzbekistan under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Ministry of Environment Protection, 2009, Kazakhstan’s Second National Communication to the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; State Agency for Hydrometeorology of Tajikistan, 2009, The Second National Communication; State Agency on Environment Protection and Forestry under the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, 2009, The Second National Communication.
 V.A. Dukhovny, A.G. Sorokin, G.V. Stulina, 2009, Should We Think about Adaptation to Climate Change in Central Asia?. The amount of water resources is measured at the source of the river. During the course of a river its water is used by the populations living along the banks especially for agriculture irrigation. In particular the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers have been heavily used for irrigation over the past years. This resulted in a decline of the water levels of the Aral Sea where both river flow.
 The MSK scale is commonly used in Russia and former Soviet Union countries, it has 12 progressive levels from 1 “not perceptible” to 12 “ very catastrophic”. Level 9 is “destructive” and it is described as “ general panic. People may be forcibly thrown to the ground. Waves are seen on soft ground. Substandard structures collapse. Substantial damage to well-constructed structures. Underground pipelines ruptured. Ground fracturing, widespread landslides”. w.
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