Print This Post
8 September 2022, Gateway House

SCO needs proactive climate action

The SCO climate change initiatives to mitigate soaring temperatures, recurring droughts, and floods, glacial melts, and desiccation of the Aral Sea, are inadequate. Large swathes of Central Asia are hotspots for human migration due to a lack of freshwater resulting in pressure in a few habitable regions.

Fellow, Climate Change

post image

The extreme weather conditions in Uzbekistan, China, India, and Pakistan are turning climate change into a serious economic and human rights crisis. This calls for collaboration between countries facing similar climatological conditions to solve regional challenges. Multilateral initiatives like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can offer this platform, and an opportunity presents itself at the September 15-16 SCO Heads of States Council summit in Samarkand.

Member countries of the SCO comprise 42% of global population and 20% of global GDP[1]. The mountain ranges of the Pamir Knot, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Kunlun Shan, Karakoram, and the Himalayas are the source of important rivers in the region – Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Kabul, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra. Hydro-climatic threats to this region manifest through floods, droughts, mudslides, groundwater depletion, glacial outbursts, and permafrost thaw, which are intensifying because of climate change. In particular, permafrost thaw in the high mountains is resulting in devastating landslides in Central Asia[2]. Abnormally heavy rainfall increases during the summer months and decreased snowfall in winter are here to stay. It is estimated that by 2050, 2.5 million people in Central Asia will migrate due to water scarcity[3].

However, climate change is not in the SCO Charter; but it should be. This can be discussed at the Summit next week. The SCO has already created several ministerial, secretarial, and collaborative mechanisms for undertaking collective action on climate change.  Under the umbrella of ‘SCO Concept for Cooperation in Environmental Protection’, there are expert groups on the preservation of biodiversity and climate adaptation. But these do not address the root cause of Central Asia’s particular water problems.

Here, India as host of the SCO Summit in 2023 can help, in three specific ways

One, is the conclusive settlement of transboundary water-sharing agreements. Despite bilateral agreements, spats over water-sharing like the one between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over the waters of the Syr Darya River, have prevented achieving the broader goal of peace and stability in the region, and now need mediation by a third party. India’s experience in negotiating water-sharing treaties can come in handy.[4] Its successful negotiation of the 30-year Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (1996) with Bangladesh, has resulted in a booming bilateral relationship encompassing connectivity, trade, illegal immigrants, and terrorism among others.[5] On September 7, India and Bangladesh signed the Kushiyara water-sharing agreement. Resolution of water-sharing conflicts will help the region to progress

Two, China can exhibit a similar accommodative benevolence towards its regional compatriots, especially Kazakhstan, and provide data transparency in water consumption. China is using water from the transboundary Ili River for its Xinjian province but does not provide Kazakhstan with data on current or future usage. As the Ili River feeds into Lake Balkhash, an important lake in landlocked Kazakhstan, sustained water flow from the Ili is crucial. An SCO-driven working mechanism can help other Central Asian countries with similar problems, bargain better especially with bigger neighbours.

Three, India can the take the lead in building water coordination groups within the SCO that can serve twin geo-strategic objectives. India has concerns about Chinese interference on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River. A coordination mechanism within the SCO can offer some diplomatic leverage in its negotiations with China on water. The other objective is to build climate resilience in CIS countries[6] by eliminating potential flashpoints of hostilities around water usage. The two full member countries of the SCO, India and Pakistan, have demonstrated the ability to settle and adhere to a transboundary river agreement on the Indus. India can catalyze the formalization of river agreements through the SCO and make the existing one’s climate-proof.

The urgency is for SCO to act now and fast.

An example is the alarming shrinkage of the Aral Sea, the result of climate change and the Soviet-era dams and irrigation canals on the Amu and the Syr Darya rivers which do not efficiently use and distribute water. Climate change has raised the volume of water during the summer months due to the heat, and lower snowfall due to warmer winters in the high mountains where these rivers originate. In a June 2020 SCO communique, former SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov reminded the grouping about the Aral Sea, which, he said, was in a “catastrophic state and could soon disappear.”[7]

Figure 2.


Source: Silkroad Briefing


Having climate change in the SCO Charter will headline the crisis. Inspiration can be taken from BIMSTEC, which has climate change in its charter and institutionalised mechanisms that that are seeing success. Given that the United Nation’s Dushanbe Water Process (2018-2028) and its projects in the region are already doing substantial work regionally, it is certainly appropriate for the Eurasian grouping to act proactively on water resilience.

Damodar Pujari is Fellow, Climate Change, Gateway House & Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For permission to republish, please contact

©Copyright 2022 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorised copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.



[2] The 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC. See:


[4] The World Bank, a third party, mediated The Indus Water Treaty (1960) between India and Pakistan. This Treaty has in place mechanisms for mediation, arbitration, and final appeal to the International Court of Justice at Hague. It is a model that can be adapted for disputes between SCO nations.

[5] This Dialogue is conducted under the umbrella of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission. India-Bangladesh has an ongoing dialogue regarding the other 54 rivers that flow from India into Bangladesh. In fact, the interim agreement on sharing the waters of the river Kushiyara has just been finalized. Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi on 7 September to sign this Agreement and inaugurate along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the Maitree Hydroelectric Project which will supply electricity at cheaper rates to Bangladesh.

[6] Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created in December 1991. Tt present the CIS unites: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.

[7] See “Global nature of the problems”, 6 June 2020.

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , ,