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Migration, governance shape climate resilience in Tajikistan

by Janani Vivekananda | International Alert - UK
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 11:00 GMT

A boy rides a donkey along a canal in the village of Sangtuda, some 150 km (94 miles) south of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on May 28, 2008. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Uneven distribution of water and fuel across Central Asia, combined with heavy reliance on remittances from migration, poses significant risks to stability

Central Asia faces the double burden of fragility and climate change. Uneven distribution of resources across the various Central Asian countries poses significant risks to stability, with climate change adding an additional layer of insecurity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left some Central Asian countries with an abundance of water resources but limited fossil fuel energy and others with less water but more fossil fuel reserves. Trans-boundary sharing of water and energy resources has caused escalating tensions between the various neighbours in the region.

Climate change, the impacts of which are already being perceived through unseasonal weather patterns, will act as a threat multiplier by negatively impacting on the availability of these natural resources.

To understand the specific ways in which these risks could play out, the peacebuilding organization International Alert in Tajikistan conducted research into community resilience in three subnational locations in Tajikistan. The research identifies the key obstacles to local resilience in each location.

Despite the topological difference in study sites, from high landslide-prone hills in Penjikhent district to flat and fertile cotton plains in A. Jomi district, the findings from the study were consistent: the opportunities for and primary obstacle to resilience at the local level are not linked to the changing availability of natural resources such as water and viable land, but rather to the governance and management of resources, and to remittances coming in from the rapidly growing number of migrants.


The challenge in Tajikistan is not too little water, but rather the equitable governance and allocation of this vital resource.

Eighty percent of Central Asia’s water reserves are concentrated in the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the face of melting glaciers and changing water tables, Tajikistan is exposed to the challenges of water security and, directly linked to this, energy security, food security and insecure livelihoods. These insecurities further increase the risk of instability and conflict in the country.

One of the main intervening factors in the breakout of the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) was conflict over access to water, land and other resources among native and resettled populations in cotton growing areas. The root causes of conflict continue to exist today and in the wake of these existing socio-economic and political stressors, understanding the impacts of climate change becomes all the more essential.


Although at present water is available for use given Tajikistan’s glacial reserves, there are discrepancies in terms of people’s access to water, and its distribution and usage.

Water infrastructure for distribution is currently outdated and many villages do not have direct access to water. With fluctuating temperature and increased drought, there will be additional strains on water availability and distribution.

Efficient water management systems are essential for Tajikistan in light of climate change. ­At the very least, there need to be better water management systems to ensure that communities have a more equitable distribution of water resources.

This also requires balancing the use of water for industrial purposes that are deemed important for GDP growth and communities’ use of water that is vital for their livelihoods and well-being.


International Alert’s case study also highlights that it is mostly through remittances from migrant family members that households finance their basic expenditure.

The story around remittances is complex. Women seem to be particularly affected by economic migration, as they are often left to head the household and provide for families through irregular employment. Yet remittances were the only way in which many households said they could afford purchases, including fuel-efficient cook stoves and greenhouses under resilience-building projects supported by international development agencies.

According to the World Bank, Tajikistan is more dependent on remittances than any other country in the world. In 2012, migrant workers contributed the equivalent of 47 percent to Tajikistan’s GDP. Approximately half of working-age males are thought to be abroad, most in Russia.

However, despite the scale of migration and remittances in contributing to resilience – both positively and negatively - there is little acknowledgement of the link between resilience and remittances.

As climate change makes agricultural livelihoods less viable, migration will only increase. This trend needs to carefully governed to ensure the rights and well-being of migrants in host locations, and to ensure the highly gender specific implications of migration do not undermine household resilience.

Xenophobia and exploitation of Tajik migrants in Russia predominantly affects men, whilst the women they leave behind struggle to juggle working for a regular income on top of household chores and raising children.

So far, remittances are conspicuously absent in national policy or development and climate adaptation strategies, despite the significant role that migrant cash flows play in Tajikistan. Lack of analysis or policy around this issue will leave migrants vulnerable to any possible blocks posed by Russia on migration, and fail to ensure the well-being of both migrants and the families they leave behind.


The dependence on migration and the Russian job market is unlikely to ebb. This leaves the country in general and migrating individuals in particular highly vulnerable to any whims of the host communities.

Furthermore, even without Russia closing its doors to migrants or using its leverage over Tajikistan in any other way, the implications of migration for social dynamics, particularly in some of the largely female headed households in the mountainous regions of the country, pose a significant risk to local resilience.

These dynamics need to be better understood and managed to ensure that the positive resilience-building dimensions of migration are maximized and the negatives are addressed.

While migration, remittances and water governance might not fit neatly within existing interpretations of ‘climate adaptation’, those working on climate change adaptation and resilience building would do well to acknowledge the role that these issues play in determining the options available to environmentally vulnerable households.

Without serious consideration of these obstacles, technical climate fixes will remain limited in their ability to address the root causes of community vulnerability to climate and environmental change. 

Janani Vivekananda is a senior climate change and security adviser in International Alert’s Security and Peacebuilding Programme.


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