A new study looks at ways to improve the provision of crucial wetland ecosystem services and enhance the resilience of the Amudarya River delta amid continued river runoff uncertainty. Photo: A. Kumar-Rao/Flickr

Water management

Delta blues

Reducing climate change vulnerability around Amudarya River delta is possible but measures are considerable

Story highlights

  • Study assessed the vulnerability of the ecosystems of the Amudarya river, the largest river in the Aral Sea basin, to climate change impact
  • Results show that the river would benefit from a more balanced water allocation that takes multiple uses into accoun
  • Three alternative policy options for improved ecosystem services were developed,  all included a decrease in cotton production by at least ten percent

The wetlands of the Amudarya River delta in Uzbekistan provide valuable ecosystem services to a human population which has suffered severely from the loss of the Aral Sea. For centuries the Sea and its deltas supported the population with everything from fish, fodder and protection from desertification.

No more.

50 years of massive man-made alterations to the hydrological system in the area, mainly to support Soviet cotton industry, have led to the end of fish production in the lake and severe reductions in the muskrat and reed production in the river delta. And climate change looms. However, at the same time the high variability of river flows and adaptability of deltaic ecosystems provide many so far unused opportunities.

Can adaptive changes in management and agricultural resource priorities make use of novel opportunities and bring back prosperity to this strained river and its human population?

A better balance
In a study recently published in Global and Planetary Change, centre researcher Maja Schlüter with Uzbek colleagues have looked at ways to improve the provision of crucial wetland ecosystem services and enhance the resilience in the area amid continued river runoff uncertainty.

Their conclusion is that the Amudarya River, the largest river in the Aral Sea basin and a blood vein through a region particularly sensitive to climate change, can benefit from a more balanced water allocation that takes multiple uses into account, improvement of water use efficiency and a reduction of water intensive crops.

But that is easier said than done. And not necessarily enough.

Along the river, a significant quantity of water is abstracted for irrigated agriculture, particularly cotton production. Irrigated agriculture accounts for 90 percent of crop yields and consumes over 92 percent of the total water intake.

The precious but scarce amounts of water also lead to conflicts over water allocation, mainly between farmers in the southern part of the river delta (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and populations in the northern Uzbek Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan who use it for drinking water and to sustain fish enterprises. Ecological considerations and environmental flows are rarely considered.

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Alternative options
In their paper, Maja Schlüter and her colleagues therefore assessed the vulnerability of the ecosystems of the Amudarya river to climate change impacts and consider new strategies that could improve "desirable ecosystem services".

The assessment was based on climate modelling, field survey data and reports of several development projects conducted in the region. Knowledge elicited during field studies, consultations and workshops also played an important part.

"We developed three alternative policy options that could potentially improve the provision of ecosystem services. All included a decrease in cotton production by at least ten percent. However, the loss of cotton would be offset by an increase in wheat production and productivity of other ecosystem goods and services such as fish, game birds, muskrat and pasture," Schlüter explains.

She warns however, that in the long run, measures of simply adapting cropping patterns and improving water use efficiency fall short in providing long term opportunities. For this, tradeoffs between alternative water uses such as water for crop production and water for other ecosystem services need to be balanced better and adaptive institutions must be developed to secure their long-term sustainability.

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Schlüter, M., Khasankhanova, G., Talskikh, V., Taryannikova, R., Agaltseva, N., Joldasova, I., Ibragimov, R., Abdullaev, U. 2013. Enhancing resilience to water flow uncertainty by integrating environmental flows into water management in the Amudarya River, Central Asia, Global and Planetary Change, Volume 110, Part A, November 2013, Pages 114-129, ISSN 0921-8181, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloplacha.2013.05.007.

Maja Schlüter studies the links between the social and ecological systems and how they affect the resilience and governance of Social-Ecological Systems (SES). She uses simulation modelling (agent-based simulation, bio-economic, evolutionary game theory) and empirical research to investigate the role of (missing) feedbacks between environmental and human behavioral or institutional change for the capacity of a SES to adapt.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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