Dimitris Symeonidis & Dr. Techn. Vesela Tanaskovic Gassner

Climate change is already showing its worst effects on the planet since we are expected to fail greatly in the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming target. Central Asia is among the regions that are devastated much more than the rest of the world.

According to the IPCC report, temperatures are rising faster in the region, and effects such as glacier melting, desertification, and salinization are prevalent.

A common theme that many of these detrimental effects entail is that all are water-related. Combined with the non-sustainable agricultural practices, this is only expected to lead to massive water shortages.

This is already evident in cases such as the Aral Sea shrinking, the Amu Darya river slowly dying in some locations, and conflict happening over border water sources.

Since water management and its relevant issues are strongly correlated with agriculture and pasture, two potential solutions exist.

The first one is sustainable water management and sustainable irrigation practices, whereas the second one is alternative crops, with aquaculture being one of the most promising means.

While for the former, there have been many attempts at sustainable water management techniques, for the latter, there is very little research at the level of Central Asia, and even less interest and attention is paid to this great resource of nutrients for food or lipids for energy and/or biostimulants production.

A review and a better understanding of the aquatic flora is paramount so that opportunities are mapped that will stop the drying trend of the region.

Caspian Sea’s Marine Riches

The most logical move that ought to be made with regard to the Central Asian world would be to start from the most significant water body in the region, the Caspian Sea.

The different species that exist have not been studied sufficiently, but there has been some extensive research on algal blooms. More specifically, Nodularia has formed algal blooms numerous times in the past, showing the high growth potential under controlled conditions.

As a nitrogen-fixing type of cyanobacteria, this type of microalgae can function perfectly as a biostimulant. If produced at scale, can substantially reduce the need for fertilizer and agriculture-related imports for the region.

The fact that there are algal blooms makes it very promising that there will be a satisfying yield so that interested parties can make a significant profit. In addition, the virtually ubiquitous Ulva species is also present in the Caspian Sea.

It is a species that has been cultivated frugally and in many regions around the world, and its lipid and protein content make it an excellent source as a biofuel, biostimulant, or even food supplement. This can create tremendous value in aquaculture in the Caspian Sea.

This is of particular interest to the two Central Asian states that share the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, which can create a whole new economy that will sequester carbon, create new jobs and reduce dependency on different imports.

Initially, the chief challenges correlated with this are related to finding the space needed. Turkmenistan uses the Caspian Sea for tourism, like the Awaza resort town, and as a port in Turkmenbashi.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, uses its coastline to transport oil. Both activities make it challenging to find space.

Also, delineating borders at sea is always an essentially complicated task. In a region that has been torn with conflicts over the past five years, regional stability mustn’t be jeopardized.

Canals

Canals are a source of life for the local economies. They are deemed by many to be “rivers of happiness”, giving inspiration not only to people in agriculture but also to artists to express their creativity with them inspiration.

The different number of microalgae species, as well as the algal blooms they generate, is a very good indicator of the biodiversity but also of the potential growth rates if aquaculture becomes prevalent in the region.

The Karakum canal, a lifeline for the Turkmen people, is deemed to be the most fertile canal in the region by far, and it is only comparable to the set of canals across the Golodnaya steppe, close to the Ferghana valley.

The most commonly found species are diatoms, which have a very important positive trait but also face a major challenge. Diatoms grow at acutely high rates, some doubling even every 24 hours. Their composition is such that they can be used in a series of sectors, from biofuel production to even materials used in space technology.

However, it is very important not to choose invasive species, as many of the diatoms fall under this category, and they become substantially aggressive toward other microalgal species.

Alternatively, cyanobacteria and green algae are also abundant in some of the canals, including the Karakum one. There is much more knowledge in the cultivation of these species, and they can also be harvested for their lipid and protein content for a series of applications.

Overall, canals carry great potential for aquaculture. However, some key issues need to be addressed. Primarily awareness and acceptance by local communities are paramount.

Water is already becoming a luxury in some of these communities. If there is not adequate information, such moves might be perceived to lead to even more significant water shortages and even less water for irrigation.

Secondly, apart from the regulatory framework that has to be set, thorough research ought to take place, so it can be understood which species are endemic and the culture of which will not lead to distortion of biodiversity.

The latter is of uttermost importance, as a distortion of biodiversity might have the exact opposite effect of the desired one and end up accelerating some of the effects of climate change even more.

Lakes, the case of Issyk-Kul

Another set of water bodies that has excellent potential for freshwater algae and aquatic plant cultivation is the lakes. Apart from the dying Aral Sea, a significantly large lake that can be used for this purpose is the Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan.

It is home to a wide variety of freshwater microalgae and aquatic plants, for some of which there are already data regarding their growth rate and potential for cultivation.

Myriophyllum, in particular, is proven to have acutely high growth rates, and excellent results in nutrient uptake, and at the same time, it can function perfectly as a carbon sink.

It grows in significant numbers in the Issyk-Kul lake, and hence this water body can be used as a field for it to grow. The main challenges in that regard are mostly related to the occupancy of the lake due to tourist activity.

If specific space is allocated, however, towards their cultivation, water quality is expected to grow, which might, in turn, increase tourist activity and satisfaction of tourists in total.

Another species that is endemic to the country and is also very promising is Lemna, also known as duckweed. Its very high nutrient accumulation rates and the very high growth rate it presents make it an ideal choice for any kind of cultivation, from food supplements to animal feed and even biostimulants/biofuels.

The fact that it can grow very quickly makes it also a great choice if the frugal infrastructure to grow is needed, such as transparent plastic tubes.

Drivers and Challenges

Before proceeding with such groundbreaking projects in the region, it is paramount to understand if and why there would be an increasing need for such activities, but also what we should look out for.

Firstly, the ability of algae to sequester carbon at ten or more times the rate trees do makes them an excellent carbon sink for a region that faces the direst consequences of climate change.

In addition, the shift in the geopolitical world order that has been made amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine has severely distorted many sectors that have to do with Central Asia.

The first sector is agriculture, as the region heavily depended on imports from Moscow, many of which have been disrupted due to the ongoing war.

The second sector is the labor market, as seasonal migration for work has ceased, and there is a need for Central Asia to generate in-house jobs that can be sustained.

Considering that algae cultivation can be a source of energy for countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which rely on hydropower, the low water levels in reservoirs are creating an alarm that these countries might have to face electricity and energy shortages more frequently in the future.

Hitherto, there is an alarmingly increasing need for local sources of energy. As they can grow and use these products locally, these practices can help promote the formation of local renewable energy communities (LRECs), as these species can be used to generate biofuels, with a strong focus on biohydrogen, that can be used in practically any kind of sector(heating, cooking, transport, etc), even in existing infrastructure.

On the other hand, several challenges ought to be overcome. The first one is the legislative and regulatory framework.

There is no clear framework in algal cultivation regarding who owns the waters and how to get permission to use them for cultivation.

Fisheries and fishing as a means of work do not include practices of fish cultivation in stable places in Central Asia, which means that in most countries, there is no explicit provision for algae.

It is imperative, hence, to develop a series of regulations about receiving permission to cultivate algae and from whom and to streamline the procedure.

The second one entails international waters, such as the Caspian or Aral Sea. The coastline demarcation is not so clear everywhere, and even in cases where it is, such regulations cease to exist several meters offshore.

This can quickly create or enhance disputes; contemplating that the region has been conflict-torn over the past years, tensions might escalate quickly.

It is, thus, of great importance to developing a cooperation framework, either on a bilateral or multilateral level, for these activities.

The last one is geopolitical. Introducing micro and macroalgae cultivation would require knowledge-sharing and capacity-building practices in collaboration with external actors.

Such actors would be experienced ones in these practices, from Europe(Scandinavia and Iceland) to North America(USA and Canada) or even East Asia(China, Japan).

As these state actors are diverse and have different geopolitical aims, their involvement in the exploitation of resources in Central Asia might create a conundrum in the region, especially at this moment when the Central Asian geopolitical map is expected to be reshaped, with heavy involvement both from China and from Turkey, but also the EU, taking place.

It is essential that this innovative approach is seen purely for its environmental and societal value and not for its political one.

Conclusion

Overall, Central Asia is a region that faces virtually all effects of climate change, from direct ones such as water shortages and desertification to indirect ones like conflict, destabilization, and, expected in the future, climate migration.

Algae cultivation is a globally accepted practice that has great potential of sequestering carbon, increasing water quality, and creating a new source of economy, generating jobs and relieving society at large.

However, the society, the regulatory framework, and the geopolitical landscape are not yet ready. Engaging with public state actors and private ones, such as the union of entrepreneurs, will be the key to unlocking these challenges and helping the local communities thrive under these circumstances by valorizing them into any kind of products, from food supplements to energy and platform chemicals.

Civil society and academia have a significant role to play here by introducing these practices, building capacity, and guiding local communities so that they can grow them optimally and valorize them in the best way.

Through strong collaboration with external actors in a geopolitically sound way, these innovations can, in the long term, lead to a fully stable Central Asia.

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*Dimitris Symeonidis is a Policy Entrepreneur in blue economy/Ocean CDR/Carbon Removal/Sustainability & Resilience. He is also a Policy Analyst specializing in energy policy & geopolitical risk in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

**Dr. Techn. Vesela Tanaskovic Gassner is an eco-science entrepreneur and founder of Afforest for Future


*Disclaimer: The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues. The views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff.