‘Mountainous countries face acute peril from climate change’

Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Zhaparov says that the difficulties faced by countries like his are being ignored by the West

Oliver Poole
Tuesday 21 June 2022 13:56 BST
(Government of Kyrgyzstan)

The head of one of the mountainous nations of central Asia has called on the world not to ignore countries like his hit by the consequence of global warming and the damage done to livelihoods and the local environment as thousand-year-old glaciers melt.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Sadyr Zhaparov, who has been president of the central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan since being voted into power in January last year, said that the devastating impact of climate change on nations in mountainous countries is too often overlocked.

“The world is facing global climate change, which is fraught with dangerous consequences,” he said. “This is especially true for us mountain countries because these problems are more dynamic and specific: glaciers melting and natural water reserves decreasing, which can lead to imminent disaster.

“That is why the international community should pay special attention to the needs of the developing mountainous countries that have been badly hit by climate change and note the importance of the “climate justice” concept while taking actions in order to address climate change.

“Kyrgyzstan is home for almost ten thousand glaciers. Over the last twenty years, we are witnessing an irreversible melting of those century old glaciers that is leading to gradual shrinking of water resources.”

Mr Zhaparov has become a leading figure in the global warming debate since he gave an emotion speech at COP26 in Glasgow. In it, he called on the world to recognise it was not just low-lying countries that faced the greatest danger from climate change but also those at far higher altitudes, like Kyrgyzstan, where the impact too often goes unrecognised.

Since then he has become a global figurehead for such states demanding a reduction in carbon emissions, most recently through presenting at the United Nations last month a five-year plan for mountain countries to work together to try to protect their unique ecosystems.

Talking in his presidential office in the country’s capital Bishkek, Mr Zhaparov explained that his determination to raise awareness about the issue is particularly acute as he had grown up in a mountainous region of the country and has witnessed for himself how the environment there is changing.

“I am a frequent visitor to the village where I was born,” he said, “and I can see that the glaciers are disappearing in the blink of an eye. The reason I raised this issues at Glasgow and since is that I am a witness to the effects of climate change in our own mountains.

“People do not talk about it as they do the impact of climate change on other states as they are not aware of a country like Kyrgyzstan and the problems here. If it was a big country like the UK or USA and they had these problems then it would be different. The international community does not notice us and they should.”

The land-locked nation of Kyrgyzstan borders China and became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Settled by Kyrgyz tribes from Siberia and Altay before and during the time of Genghis Khan, the area, the area was ruled by various regional powers before coming under Russian and then Soviet rule. It is home to 158 mountain ranges and most of its six million people are Turkic-speaking Muslims.

Mr Zhaparov won a landslide victory in the 2021 presidential election and acquired sweeping new powers after voters amended the constitution in a referendum. He spent seven years in exile during the rule of President Almazbek Atambayev and his successor Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and has pledged to make tackling corruption his main domestic priority in office.

The United Nations has warned that mountain ecosystems are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change and are being affected at a faster rate than other terrestrial habitats. Forty percent of the world’s population rely indirectly on mountain resources for drinking water, agriculture, biodiversity, and hydroelectricity, which could be lost as a result of global warming.

Climate change is also likely to increase exposure to hazards, with extreme events such as avalanches and landslides becoming more common. Mountains are also home to a high degree of biodiversity, including many endemic species, and in Kyrgyzstan the landscape is particularly important as home to the rare snow leopard.

Mr Zhaparov said the country was taking its own steps to tackle carbon emissions. Since his election a new initiative called Green Heritage aims for six million new trees to be planted in the country each year, and it is gradually transitioning from carbon-producing energy to renewable sources of power, particularly hydroelectric.

“We are doing our best to counter the adverse effects of climate change that are in our control,” he said. “I signed the Decree ‘On Declaring 2022 the Year of Protection of Mountain Ecosystems and Climate Sustainability’ in order to address environmental and climate change adaptation challenges and help preserve those glaciers and rivers from drying up.

“Given the growing scarcity of water resources, we are working to introduce water-sparing technologies in agriculture and other sectors of the national economy. We are also expanding public access to the clean potable water and increase efficiency of its daily use by offering financial incentives and raising awareness.”

But Mr Zhaparov warned it would not be enough unless there was recognition and support from the international community of the particular challenges global warming caused to countries like his.

“Kyrgyzstan will welcome any unconditional assistance of the international community that will underpin our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the climate change,” he said.

“When I was a child I used to travel in the mountains with my father. He was a forester and his job was to cut back the long glass. I used to go with him and I remember when I was a boy he suddenly told me to stop and look. He had binoculars. I looked through them and there, crawling on the mountain, for the first time I saw a snow leopard.

“Here in Kyrgyzstan we are doing all we can to protect snow leopards like that one but, unless the international community acts, then I am afraid that my grandchildren will never experience the same sights I did as a child with my father.”

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