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Adapting regional agriculture to climate change

Date: 05.07.2016.

Central Asia is predicted to experience a significant climate change and increased weather variability over the coming decades. Agriculture is the first and foremost sector sensitive to weather shocks and climate variability. Since agriculture is a key economic sector and a major source of livelihoods for Central Asia’s predominantly rural population, especially for the poor, if no adaptive actions are taken, climate change may lead to significant losses in rural incomes and agricultural production.


Climate change projections


According to projections on future climate change presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014, temperatures in the region may be increasing under all scenarios, whereas direction and magnitudes of changes in precipitation and river water flows are less certain.


Downscaled maps of climate change forecasts for Central Asia prepared by ICARDA in 2012 indicate that there may be increases in the average annual mean, minimum and maximum temperatures throughout the region, though temperature increases would be lower in the west near the Caspian Sea and higher in the north.


Summers may become hotter and winters colder. The projected median increase in temperature is estimated to be about 3.7°C on average by the end of the century, with most of the increase to occur during summers.


In general, precipitation may increase in the region, with higher increases in the north, and possibly some very slight decreases in the south. Spring and fall precipitations are likely to increase while summer precipitation may decrease. Wetter winters are expected to be more frequent, as well as drier springs, summers and autumns.


Irrigated agriculture in Central Asia depends strongly on the river flow of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers, which are predominantly fed by glaciers of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges. Over the last 50 years, the extent of glaciers was reduced in these mountain ranges by 30% and 14%, respectively. Although intensified glacier melting could provide additional water at early stages of melting, once glaciers have melted this could lead to severe water shortages.


Impacts on agriculture


An increasing number of studies looking into the potential economic impacts of climate change in Central Asia demonstrate that it is likely to have differentiated impacts on various crops and regions, with possible yield gains, especially for rainfed wheat, irrigated maize and potato, whereas the cotton yields may be impacted more negatively, especially in the long-term (2040-2070).


Some studies find that wheat yields may grow on average by 12% across Central Asia, ranging from -3% to +27%. Others project that potato yields in mountainous areas of Tajikistan may increase by 10 to 70%, depending on crop management practices, and may decrease by 8% in the plain areas of Kazakhstan. By 2050, climate change may lead to higher rainfed wheat yields in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (by 0-11%), while in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rainfed wheat yields may decline (by 8-18%). According to some estimates, in most areas of Uzbekistan, yields of cotton may increase by 10-15% and of cereals by 7-15%.


Without adaptation, yields of most crops in Uzbekistan could drop by 20-50% by 2050. Cotton yields may decrease by up to 40% across the region. The yields for irrigated wheat may decrease in all countries (by 7-14%), except in Uzbekistan (+1%).


More comprehensive bio-economic modelling finds that agricultural producers in Uzbekistan are likely to gain from climate change during the 2010-2040 period, but their revenues are projected to fall during the 2070-2100 period due to decreasing water availability. Similarly, climate change impacts in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are likely to lead to higher farming incomes, although this may be accompanied by increased variability of these incomes. Studies also show that beyond the effect on crop production, climate change may have negative impacts on the livestock sector through lower pasture productivity and increased frequency of heatwaves in summers and frosts in winter.


Other studies for assessing climate change impacts apply econometric approaches, using past observations of climate impacts on agriculture in order to forecast potential future impacts. Such studies take into account, although implicitly, full adaptation to climate change at previously observed historical levels. The annual impacts of climate change on Central Asian agriculture may range between +1.21% to -1.43% of net crop production profits by 2040, which corresponds to +180 mln USD annually in the optimistic scenario, to -210 mln USD annually in the pessimistic scenario relative to 2010 levels.


Weather variability and fluctuations in the availability of irrigation water would have significant effects on wheat prices in Central Asia. Hydrological draughts could lead to substantially higher wheat prices in the region. A 30% decrease in the water flow of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers in the region could lead to at least 400 USD per ton of an additional increase in the wheat price. Hydrological draughts could encourage irrigation-dependent countries of the region to raise wheat stocks to face expected supply shortfalls thus leading to higher prices. This effect could be further aggravated by negative effects of draughts on wheat yields. Higher wheat prices will translate to higher flour and bread prices, thus negatively affecting access to food among the poorer households.


Adaptation to climate change


As climate change is going to increase the frequency and magnitudes of weather extremes, agricultural households in Central Asia may be confronted by unprecedented weather shocks. Most of the recommended adaptation actions, such more efficient water use, development of drought-resistant cultivars, adoption of sustainable land management practices and institutional reforms, are highly useful for agricultural development in the region with or without climate change. Thus, they could be implemented as no-regret options for adapting to climate change while reaping the benefits of these measures in terms of improved agricultural development in Central Asia even in the case of perfect mitigation. Moreover, estimates show that adoption of climate-smart and sustainable agricultural practices in the region may increase net agricultural profits among different categories agricultural producers by 20-50%.


There have been several institutional and technological shifts during the last 20 years that have contributed to increasing adaptive capacities in the region, such as agricultural individualization and privatization, reduction of price distortions in agricultural input and output markets, maintenance of open cross-border trade in agricultural products, or from the technological side: adoption of elements of conservation agriculture on quite massive areas in northern Kazakhstan, large-scale crop substitution from cotton to wheat in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, significant gains in wheat productivity due to development of new wheat varieties in Uzbekistan. This puts the region on a better footing for adapting to climate change.


However, more needs to be done. Surveys of agricultural producers in Central Asia show that the majority of them have noticed changes in the climate, as manifested by changing temperature and precipitation amounts and patterns, even though the levels of adaptation in response to these changes remains relatively low. The surveys also show that 57% of agricultural producers perceived changes in the climate but did not adapt, implying that either they saw no need in adapting or were constrained in their adaptive actions.


Those households which adapted to climate change (26%) were influenced in their adaptation decisions by higher number and spread of weather shocks that they faced. This means that many adaptive actions undertaken by agricultural households are happening after weather shocks. Although better than inaction, it would be more optimal to mitigate the vulnerability to climate change by taking actions to increase the resilience of agricultural households in a pro-active manner, i.e. taking actions before weather shocks. For example, better knowledge of sustainable land management technologies was found to increase adaptation. Similarly, more diversified cropping portfolios are found to increase adaptive capacities.


Many of the surveyed farming households do not yet perceive changes in the climate as a possible threat to their farming activities, because they have either not felt any negative impacts of climate change, or, in fact, feel that some of the on-going changes are positively influencing their crop and livestock productivity. As climate change is a “low signal” risk, raising public awareness and government support could be necessary for any ex ante pro-active actions. Given the uncertainties of climate change, an important criterion in selecting ex ante adaptation measures should be that these measures need to enable farmers to better cope both with current and future climate-related challenges, i.e. be so-called no-regret options. Fortunately, the past research reveals that several of the most important factors positively influencing adaptation decisions have effects which would be strongly beneficial even now irrespective of climate change.


The major role in promoting, supporting and implementing climate change adaptation measures needs to be played by the governments in the region. There are several key areas where public action is needed for adaptation. One of these areas is improving farmers’ knowledge about sustainable land management practices, which would necessitate improving the quality and spread of extension services, also by making them more demand-driven. Many of the constraints on adaptation cited by the farmers involved lack of access to financial resources, hence there is a need for enabling policy environment to strengthen the role of rural financial institutions and of access to financial intermediation in the rural areas. Some studies also show that poorer farmers are less likely to adapt to climate change and take coping actions against weather shocks than richer farmers. This may be especially worrisome since poorer farmers depend more on climate-sensitive agriculture for their livelihoods. Future policy initiatives on improving adaptive capacities in the region should take into account these differences in adaptive capacities among farmers and institute pro-poor measures.

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Acting as an information repository and knowledge hub, this website helps to increase the use of innovations developed by the well-established CACILM Project in Central Asia. Its synthesis, compilation, and dissemination of current research provide a secure knowledge base that policymakers and other stakeholders can access and utilize to develop sustainable strategies capable of addressing the region’s severe land degradation.

The Project is funded by IFAD and led by ICARDA under framework of CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

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