Central Asia is facing important challenges to coping with the adverse effects of climate change. A 2009 study by the World Bank found that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had the highest degree of sensitivity to climate change in Europe and Central Asia and the lowest degree of adaptive capacity. In particular, the impacts of climate change on water-related disasters in the region have been recognised as a key threat. In Central Asia, socio-economically disadvantaged, indigenous groups, ethnic minorities, women, children and elderly are highly sensitive and particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as resilience and coping capacities are typically low. 

One of the most significant effects of global warming in Central Asia (CA) is glacial melting and the associated formation of glacial lakes. Around the beginning of the 1970s, accelerated glacier mass loss has been reported in the region (Sorg et al., 2012; Farinotti et al., 2015; Hoelzl et al., 2017). Today’s rate of glacier loss in CA is 0.2–1% per year in volume. Furthermore, a 2017 analysis found that the impact of future climate change on glaciers in Central Asia is expected to be substantial: scenarios indicate that with a global temperature increase of 1.5°C, glacier mass in the Tien Shan range could decrease by 31%, while a 2° temperature increase could result in losses of up to 66%. Due to glacier melting and lake formation, there is an increased danger of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which confound and exacerbate water-related threats to mountain communities, their settlements, livelihood, and infrastructure located on river floodplain areas. 

GLOF Hazards and Exposure

In the past two decades, GLOFs have resulted in significant economic damages and loss of life. In 1998, a GLOF in the Shakhimardan River catchment in Uzbekistan resulted in 93 fatalities, and in 2002, a GLOF in Dasht, Tajikistan left dozens of people dead. More recently, high temperatures and rapid melting in July 2015 triggered mudflows in the mountainous regions of Tajikistan. In 2008, a GLOF at the Zyndan glacial lake in Kyrgyzstan killed three people and led to substantial economic losses. Meltwater outbursts from the Aksai glacier in northern Kyrgyzstan triggered a GLOF that damaged houses and roads in villages down the valley. The lake still poses a continuous threat to the capital city of Bishkek. In 2015, a GLOF near Almaty, Kazakhstan caused the evacuation of over 1,000 people and 78 injuries. In addition, 127 houses were damaged. Across the region, experts estimate that nearly 100,000 people in mountainous areas face GLOF threats, with many others at risk downstream. In addition, several mountainous areas are relatively popular tourist destinations, which also places visitors at risk.

The incidence of dangerous glacial lakes in Central Asia is also increasing. A 2015 study in Kazakhstan identified 32 lakes in the Ile Alata region and 110 lakes in Zhetysu Alatau region that had a water volume exceeding 100,000 m3. In Kyrgyzstan, the latest inventory indicates that there are more than 350 glacial lakes in danger of outburst. Each year, there are twenty lakes that are in acute danger of failure, and approximately 300 settlements are exposed to potential GLOFs. Threats can appear rapidly; in the case of the Zyndan GLOF, the lake formed over a period of only two and a half months In Tajikistan, complex topography, high rainfall levels, and a large number of glaciers lead to a high level of exposure, and the south-western Pamir mountain range contains around 335 lakes with GLOF potential. In Uzbekistan, very large floods and mudslides are generally caused by the outburst of mountain lakes. According to Uzbekistan’s hydromet agency, the country is threatened with 271 potential GLOFs, most of which are located outside its border. 

The number of glacial lakes and incidences of failure are expected to increase further as new lakes continue to develop and surrounding steep slopes destabilize in response to warming, particularly warmer summer temperatures. In Central Asia, regional scientific studies suggest that glacier shrinkage is causing more frequent hazards, including GLOFs (see Figure 1; Hoelzle et al., 2017). In addition to the large volume of water released by GLOFs, they present a significant transboundary hazard. Hence, the increasing risk of disasters from GLOFs is a significant threat to national and regional security and to sustainable development in Central Asia. In fact, during the international seminar co-organized by the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia and UNESCO, “The Impact of Glaciers Melting in Central Asia on National and Trans-Boundary Water Systems” in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April 2013, GLOFs were specifically highlighted as a key threat to the socio-economic development of the region.  In June 2018, an international Climate and Water Forum held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, reaffirmed the linkages between climate change, water resources, and disaster risk reduction in mountainous communities in Central Asia and highlighted the importance of partnerships between academia, hydromet agencies, ministries, and civil society in addressing threats.

DRR and Adaptation in Central Asia

With the global emergence of new commitments to disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA), the issue of monitoring, forecasting and early warnings of natural hazards (including on GLOFs) is gaining importance in the region.  In 2015, representatives from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan endorsed a joint statement of support for a post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction and expressed a commitment to “develop, assess, and monitor regional and national programs of disaster risk reduction in accordance with the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction.” At a subsequent regional platform meeting for DRR in 2016 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, participants called for the establishment of a regional forum to strengthen collaboration and provide important support to implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 at local, national, regional levels.

In the Central Asian region, which was part of the Soviet Union, disaster response has been traditionally stronger than prevention and preparedness. At present, the relevant ministries/committees (the Committee for Emergency Situations in Kazakhstan, the Committee of Emergency Situations and Civil Defence in Tajikistan, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Uzbekistan) still focus primarily on disaster response. 

With the emergence of DRR as an area of cooperation, several country-level and bilateral programs have begun to address the issue. Countries in Central Asia maintain some common legislative links through their membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).  For example, in 2014, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan adopted a model act on international disaster assistance through the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the CIS. In January 2017, the four countries participated in a regional consultative conference on the legal aspects of disaster risk reduction. 

In programming, the EU-funded Disaster Preparedness ECHO Programme (DIPECHO) has supported a variety of policy and education/training activities in Central Asian Countries. In 2016, DIPECHO also supported the establishment of the inter-governmental Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan Center for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR) in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Non-governmental actors are also involved in DRR activities: the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, for example, is currently cooperating with CESDRR on emergency response and DRR. However, country programming on DRR is at a relatively early stage, and it faces shortages of funding and qualified personnel. Furthermore, GLOFs have not been addressed explicitly in programming to date. Finally, research institutes have undertaken some work in GLOF monitoring in conjunction with partners from other regions.  However, this research is not coordinated across Central Asian countries, and it does not necessarily feed into policy-making.

In addition, over the past three years, the UNESCO Almaty office has helped to build knowledge and capacities in Central Asian countries in sound water management and DRR. A total of 1,478 people have been trained in the areas of water research; governance and education; water diplomacy and cooperation; geohazard risk reduction; glacier research; and risk reduction related to glacial melting. These initiatives included training, workshops, and summer schools aimed at a variety of stakeholders: scientists and policy makers, managers, young civil servants, and young researchers. More than 268 young scientists were trained in field work in the areas of glacier mass balance measurements, landslide research and risk reduction, GLOFs, and other related topics.

The participating countries also recognize that building resilience and reducing societal vulnerabilities to climate related disasters is a key requirement for sustainable development. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development specifically pledges to reduce physical and economic losses caused from water-related disasters, with a focus on the most vulnerable communities, and furthermore highlights the need for improved education, awareness-raising, and capacity building in relation to climate change impacts and early warning (SDG targets 11.5, 13.1 and 13.3). All four countries are members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC), and they have ratified the Kyoto Protocol and have signed the 2015 Paris Agreement. The participating countries in this project are on record that they “Confirm commitment to promotion of coordinated and mutually-supporting approach in the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, the sustainable development goals, and the climate change agreements….”

Target Area of the Project

The target area of the project covers vulnerable communities across several mountain ranges in Central Asia.  Following discussions with government stakeholders, an initial group of pilot communities was identified based on representativeness of mountainous communities at risk of GLOFs, magnitude of exposure to GLOF threats, and vulnerability (e.g. communities with limited resources in need of assistance). The target communities are home to more than 85,000 people representing a number of different nationalities.

In Kazakhstan, the pilot villages of Esik and Talgar are located in the Almaty region in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains. In Kyrgyzstan, the pilot villages of Tosh-Bulak and Yurevka are located in the north central part of the country in the Ala-Too Range. In Tajikistan, the pilot villages are located in the district of Shugnon, which is located in the southwestern part of the Pamir Range, and all are directly threatened by two glacial lakes in the upper reaches of the Varshez glacial lake. In Uzbekistan, the pilot communities, Pskem and Tepar, are located in the Pskem mountain range of the West Tien Shan near the border with Kyrgyzstan. Two glacial lakes are located in the upper reaches of the Pskem River: Shavurkul Lake and Ikhnach Lake, which contain 5 million and 4 million cubic meters of water, respectively. Detailed community profiles are provided in Annex 4 of the project, and baseline community consultation information is provided in Annex 2. The pilot communities for the project were selected on the basis of an ongoing dialogue with the participating governments.  For the initial pilots, the governments identified communities that were currently exposed to an immediate GLOF threat and had a relatively high level of vulnerability. The selected communities were also reviewed at the project stakeholder validation workshop.

Barriers to Adaptation

Multiple barriers prevent effective DRR and adaptation to climate threats at a national and regional level in Central Asia.  

Institutional barriers: at the institutional level, there is a lack of a policy framework for day-to-day coordination between local and national authorities and between countries in the region. This means that there is no regional cooperation for the assessment and monitoring of transboundary GLOFs. The lack of formal cooperation makes it extremely difficult to deal with transboundary threats, and it prevents authorities from benefitting from knowledge and good practice in other areas within and adjacent to their own country.  

Moreover, there is low coordination and synergy between existing institutional structures. At present, there is no way to consolidate the existing knowledge on glaciers, glacial lakes, and GLOF events, which could enhance the ability of policy makers in Central Asia to understand the associated risks.

Organizational barriers: At the organizational level, the capacity of relevant authorities to monitor and reduce risk is weak. An underlying lack of knowledge about the distribution and severity of GLOF threats makes it very difficult to identify communities that are at high risk.  This is caused by insufficient monitoring.  While lake monitoring exists to a certain extent in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it consists of regular helicopter flights over the glaciated areas, which is not cost-effective or sustainable. 

Furthermore, disaster management authorities lack the funding and expertise to conduct a risk analysis of the communities affected by GLOFs, which hinders authorities in identifying the most vulnerable communities exposed to GLOF threats.  Current initiatives do not have the capacity to manage the risks posed by melting glaciers, including issuing early warning of GLOFs. Institutions are poorly equipped with modern technologies for early warning systems (EWS).  Furthermore, there are no mechanisms available among disaster experts, managers and planners to develop local risk reduction plans in response to GLOFs. In fact, DRR stakeholders at the national level do not have linkages with vulnerable groups at the community level that could inform their work.

In the research community, there are no formal links and very little cooperation on GLOF-related research across Central Asia, although joint research and technical exchange would be extremely beneficial, especially regarding transboundary hazards.

In addition, organizations lack the capacity to design and produce awareness-raising materials, such as educational materials for school-age children or maps and infographics for communities that are available in the relevant formats and languages.

Individual-level barriers: At the individual level, relevant authorities face a critical gap in knowledge concerning glacier lake distribution, risk mapping, and disaster prevention planning from GLOFs.  They also lack information on how implement early warning systems and other adaptation measures. Furthermore, communities at risk are not trained in emergency planning or safety measures. In addition, young local scientists have not had an opportunity to acquire fundamental knowledge regarding the cryosphere, glacier lakes, and related hazards that will allow them to make substantive contributions to mapping, monitoring, mainstreaming DRR into practice. All stakeholders lack a consolidated source of information on GLOFs and GLOF risks and risk reduction, and vulnerable groups cannot get the information they need through the formal and informal communication channels they use. Vulnerable groups also lack adequate awareness, education and training opportunities on GLOFs at the community level, especially in remote areas.

Project / Programme Objectives

The objective of the proposed project is to strengthen adaptation to climate change in Central Asia by reducing societal risks and vulnerabilities associated with GLOFs. This objective also addresses SDGs 11 and 13 of the 2030 Agenda, particularly targets 11.5 and 13.1 and 13.3.

The project objective will be achieved by assessing societal risks and vulnerabilities associated with GLOFs and then addressing these risks and vulnerabilities. The approach will strengthen the monitoring, analytical and response capacities of institutions and government officials responsible for DRR, emergencies and CCA through community and gender-sensitive ground-level training and awareness campaigns, and through the establishment of early warning systems (EWS), supported with the necessary state-of-the-art monitoring strategies. The emerging and increasing risk associated with GLOFs, together with appropriate response and adaptation strategies will be brought to the forefront of attention for decision makers and communities in all of the participating countries. 

The overall approach of the project is to assess vulnerability through work with technical experts and communities and then address vulnerability through targeted systems and measures while building capacity for prevention activities. The logic of the project intervention is provided in Figure 2.  It is the regional approach that will contribute to improved coping with climate change and its consequences through information and experience exchange with regard to best practices in CCA and DRR.

Project Management

This project will be implemented by the UNESCO Cluster Office in Almaty in collaboration with the Governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and in partnership with the University of Zurich, Switzerland, as well as the participation of local, national and regional institutions and authorities.

A unique strength of this project will be the integration of international expertise and experience from the Swiss partners, with regional and local experts in Central Asia under the auspices of UNESCO, thus highlighting the North-South cooperation. To optimise the exchange of knowledge and capacity building between partners, all project activities will be implemented with teams consisting of experts at various levels. 

As the UN specialized agency in the sciences, UNESCO aims at developing a deeper scientific comprehension of the occurrence and distribution of natural hazards in time and space. In fact, UNESCO is mandated to facilitate and promote the use of science and technology to contribute to disaster risk reduction (DRR) and conflict resolution. Reinforcing scientific cooperation is a key element for improving capacity for disaster reduction. By operating at the interface between natural and social sciences, education, culture and communication, UNESCO plays a vital role in constructing a global culture of resilient communities. The Organization is closely involved in the conceptual shift in thinking away from post-disaster reaction to pre-disaster action. UNESCO has many scientific programmes in place that deal with the study of natural hazards and the mitigation of their effects.  UNESCO is committed to the Sendai Framework and operates in accordance with its four Priorities for Action. 

UNESCO also works to build the scientific knowledge base to help countries manage their water resources in a sustainable way through the UNESCO International Hydrological Programme (IHP). In close cooperation with scientists worldwide, the IHP plays a vital role to establish a scientific and technological base for the sustainable management of water resources threatened by global climate change. The IHP strategy (Phase VIII, 2014-2020), “Water Security: Responses to Local, Regional and Global Challenges” among other themes is focusing on water-related disasters. UNESCO is coordinating projects and activities at global level on scientific collaboration including monitoring glaciers, snow and permafrost conditions and evaluating the implications of climate change on water resources and will provide feedback to develop appropriate adaptive strategies that countries need. In particular, UNESCO is engaged in supporting capacity building activities in glacier monitoring. It has been co-organizing and co-sponsoring trainings for young specialists from the CA (both in Tien Shan and Pamir mountains) and Andean region in the methods of glaciological monitoring for determining the parameters of glaciers mass balance. Two summer schools on “Glacier Mass Balance Measurements and Analysis for young researchers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia” and “Permafrost and Potentially Dangerous Glacier Lakes”, were held in July – August 2016 in Kyrgyzstan, supported by UNESCO.

The University of Zurich, which will execute designated activities and support in-country organizations in others. University of Zurich, due to its extensive and interdisciplinary research and teaching in the field of climate change, has been selected by the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) as the global hub for SDG 13 ‘climate action’ (httpss:// The group of the University of Zurich has longstanding experience and a scientific track record in glacier lake science, including aspects of past and future lake formation, lake and slope instability assessment and monitoring, both on the ground and by remote sensing methods, GLOF modelling, as well as assessment of hazards, vulnerabilities and risks. Recently, the University of Zurich has been instrumental in designing and implementing GLOF early warning systems in the Andes of Peru, in close collaboration with national and local partners from the public and private sectors and governmental authorities. Further recent expertise is also available from collaborations on GLOFs in Pakistan, India or Tajikistan, including capacity building of local experts, both governmental and non-governmental. Recognising this long-standing expertise, University of Zurich led in 2017 an international working group in the development of guidelines for glacier hazard and risk assessment Currently the University of Zurich team is consulting the Government of India for the development of guidelines for the management of glacier related risks in the Indian Himalayan region.

UZH experts have ongoing activities in Central Asia and long-standing relationships with regional experts. Under Component 1 (Strengthening national and regional capacity to monitor and assess GLOF hazards), UZH will undertake applied analysis and capacity building to support mapping and identification of hot spots.  Under Component 2 (Strengthening sub-national, national, and regional policies and approaches to meet needs of vulnerable communities), UZH will provide advisory services to support the vulnerability assessment and selection of adaptation options. Under Component 3 (Design and launch of EWS and risk reduction measures tailored to local contexts), UZH will work with a local partner (to be selected) to develop comprehensive site-specific assessments and the detailed design of 4 EWS—one in each country—and complementary measures in a total of 7 communities. They will also oversee the work of the local partner in evaluating sensors and equipment; elaborating the energy supply system; and designing communication and data storage systems and infrastructure. Under Component 4 (Targeted demonstration projects to introduce EWS technology and low-cost adaptation measures in vulnerable communities), UZH will conduct a scientific-technical assessment of the pilots and will provide advice on coordination with the local partner and authorities in the participating communities. Finally, UZH will provide technical and scientific capacity building to experts in the participating countries and will disseminate key findings from the project through activities in Component 5 (Knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement, and communication)

The project technical and scientific activities will be conducted under the guidance of the UNESCO staff in UNESCO Almaty Office in consultation with UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and in cooperation with the UNESCO National Office in Tashkent (for Uzbekistan). UNESCO will have responsibility to secure the establishment and supervision of the Project Management Unit (PMU) that will be located in the UNESCO Almaty Office.

Financial management of the funding will be the responsibility of UNESCO. It will manage the funds in accordance with its financial rules and regulations, monitor expenditures, and maintain fiscal oversight of all expenditures.

The management structure will be as follows:

Project Steering Committee (PSC). The PSC will be established, which will provide strategic guidance for the implementation of the project. The PSC will be chaired by UNESCO and will include one senior government official from each country, UNESCO representatives, a representative of the main international implementing partners. The PSC will oversee project execution and will act as the main policy guidance body for the project.

The Project Management Unit (PMU) which will be based in UNESCO Almaty Office, will have the following tasks:

  • co-ordinating institutional arrangements for management of the activities in the participating countries, the information sharing committee and the steering committee;
  • co-ordinating policy and legislative development regarding GLOF;
  • development of the KM and communication strategy;
  • conducting and overseeing awareness and education activities;
  • ensuring that possible partner agency programmes are fully integrated into the project framework;
  • monitoring the results of the demonstration projects and supporting their integration into wider development programmes;
  • monitoring technical assistance provided by the contracting agencies, including all institutional strengthening services provided to local communities and government bodies;
  • conducting and monitoring all training activities;
  • ensuring linkages to regional GLOF activities; 
  • reviewing annual work plans;
  • developing the KM system.

An Information and Experience Sharing Committee (IESC) will be established as part of the project and will represent a hub for international cooperation within the project’s context and beyond. It will have an inter-ministerial nature, formed by high level representatives of the various governmental agencies/ministries of the four countries involved in CCA and DRR. The IESC will be organized according to the following guidelines:

  • The IESC will be convened on an as-needed basis (at least once annually) to exchange information on project approaches and findings in the four participating countries and from other projects in other regions as relevant. 
  • As both governments and CSOs will participate, the IESC will also be used to identify any situations in future projects where there may be potential overlap or duplication so that these situations can be resolved at a very early stage.
  • The IESC will be kept informed on activities and outputs in all components of the projects with a view to their completeness and viability in current operating conditions.
  • The IESC members will be nominated by the Project Board and the Project Manager.
  • The UNESCO Almaty cluster office will function as the Secretariat of the IESC.
  • Participation in the IESC will not be renumerated by the project and is considered an in-kind contribution by government agencies and other organizations.
  • Participation in the IESC does not carry any expectation of employment with the project or with UNESCO.

National Execution Teams (NET) will be established in each of the four project countries. The NET will be headed by a country coordinator and one to four national experts. Country coordinators will assist the Project Manager in coordinating project activities, they will also assist in securing regular engagement and coordination with the regional and local organizations, institutions and authorities involved in project implementation. They will be chosen among candidates nominated by the countries on the basis of agreed criteria.