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Living through Tajikistan’s climate apocalypse

Living through Tajikistan’s climate apocalypse

Fredrik Lerneryd/Inverse

After a decade as a soldier in the Tajik army — and posted along border points to China and Kyrgyzstan — Jirgalber Lulbekov, 42, decided to make a living as a livestock breeder, like his father before him.

He started his business in 2018 and, at his peak, owned 400 goats. His relatively new business allowed him to achieve economic stability for his children. The future looked bright. “Then,” he says, “the economy went to hell, and the climate soon followed.”

The Covid-19 outbreak — which began in neighboring China in late 2019 — and the subsequent border lockdowns by Tajikistan’s neighbors — Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, is four times further from Lulbekov’s village of Alichur than the Chinese or Kyrgyzstan borders — meant steep increases in commodity prices on cooking oil, wheat, and gasoline coming from the faraway capital.

“This winter won’t be any easier.”

Last winter, temperatures in Alichur, and surrounding areas, plummeted to minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The snow was very deep, and nine feet of ice shielded the ground — impossible for animals to graze,” Lulbekov says; most livestock in the area feed by grazing rather than being fed by keepers. “Many died of cold or starvation.”

Efforts by breeders like Lulbekov to import food from the capital failed, and livestock in the Pamirs mountain region didn’t like the less-salty feed that breeders could get from other areas. Instead, the animals continued to eat ice-thick soil and forage for food and water. Many starved — Jirgalber soon found himself forced to sell off three-quarters of his livestock.

“I needed the money and sold at cut prices,” he says. “Now, all the money from the sale is gone, and this winter won’t be any easier.”

The temperature is rising faster in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains (elevation 25,095 feet) than the global average. These are the storiesThe people who are living through the coming climate crisis today. The Pulitzer Center supported this series.

The Pamirs’ newly extreme weather conditions are widely acknowledged as the results of glacial retreats driven by climate change. 1,000 out of Tajikistan’s 8,000 glaciersThese rivers, which provide fresh water for Tajikistan and other Central Asian nations through complex river systems, are at risk of melting. A third chance of the risk of disappearing completely in 2050 is a possibility. The glacier area surrounding Alichur has retreated significantly since the turn of the century; by about 60 square miles — an area about the size of Minneapolis and double the melting rate during the latter part of the twentieth century.

And, despite colder winters, that’s because the Pamirs are warming overall: its average temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius (two degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s, outpacing the Global average of 0.82 degrees Celsius. Climate change is therefore a two-headed monster that includes extreme cold winters as well as desert-hot summers.

“You can’t talk about seasonal cycles or transitions anymore — the weather’s too extreme now,” explains Lulbekov.

His 72-year-old father, Azizbek Lulbekov sees the changes clearly.

“Twenty years ago, this time of the year, you could still fish and store the catches for the upcoming winter,” the elder Lulbekov says. “I think last year’s cold killed all the fish; I haven’t seen any since last summer.”

“We can’t leave our land,” Lulbekov’s father says. “This is where our ancestors are buried.Fredrik Lerneryd/Inverse

It could happen again: In November 2021, the Gunt River at the town’s edge was already covered in thick ice.

And the sole link to the outside world, the renowned Pamir Highway — or the M41, which traverses Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, is the second-highest altitude international highway on the planet — is a difficult trek in the best of times.

“To even get here’s getting harder with the early winters’ arrivals,” says Lulbekov. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t like that at all.”

“It didn’t work during the Soviet era and wouldn’t work today.”

But the effects of climate change aren’t just experienced at the individual level in Tajikistan. Sixty million people depend on the Pamirs’ meltwater for drinking water and electricity; its glacial runoff irrigates the region’s large-scale production of cotton, rice, and wheat.

“In winter, there’s always the fear that water in the well will freeze,” says Lulbekov.

But for generations, livestock breeders have predominated in Alichur, a town of 2,000 people — mostly semi-nomads of Kyrgyz ancestry — at 13,000 feet above sea level. In summers, the town is nearly empty; its residents raise portable yurts in the areas their livestock graze along the mountains’ grassy slopes.

Lulbekov’s wife Tasikhan Tilebaldieva draws water from the well, which they worry will freeze during the harsh winter.Fredrik Lerneryd/Inverse

Soviet-era Tajikistan had a collectivization model that included agriculture, including livestock breeding. Each family owned its livestock, but the village-based cooperatives controlled breeding, tending and revenue. People were entitled to winter food, animal vaccinations, veterinary check-ups, as well as the ability to operate without the system.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, and Tajikistanis voted to independence in 1991. The Soviet Union was demolished overnight. The Pamirs’ semi-nomadic herders were left without the state-subsidized financial resources they were used to. They were freed. However, 72-year-old Azizbek Lulbekov believes that things are much better today.

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“I’d never want to join forces with other livestock breeders in a cooperative,” he says. “It didn’t work during the Soviet era and wouldn’t work today. People are too fixated on their own affairs.”

Collectivization also likely would not likely have helped the people navigate climate change — nor staved it off.

“This isn’t even second-hand,” Lulbekov says, knocking on the dashboard to his dark green Soviet-era Lada truck. “It’s more like a fourth-handpiece of a vehicle. It’s uncomfortable in every way — but it works! It’s easy to fix, it doesn’t drink much gasoline and it takes you Everywhere you want to go.”Fredrik Lerneryd/Inverse

Life depends on water, and Gunt River has provided for Alichur’s population for centuries. Now, the river’s shifting runoff behavior endangers the water supply to wells, irrigation ditches and gardens, and settlements at hillslopes.

And while some in the Pamirs see the reduction in the size of the glaciers as a blessing in disguise — the region’s hydropower production companies, for instance — a large-scale thaw risks launching a Biblical exodus from isolated communities like Alichur.

Lulbekov doesn’t believe much will change for his family.

“My children will stay here,” he says. “Wherever you go in the world, there are problems.”

“We can’t leave our land,” his father adds. “This is where our ancestors are buried. We can’t leave them.”

Despite their insistence that the family will remain, they don’t see a lot of hope.

“There’s no middle ground anymore,” Lulbekov says. “Only a struggle for life or death — and not just for the animals.”

This is part 2 of a 3-part series.TheClimate crisis at the Roof Of the World

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