Understanding climate politics in Central Asia – interview with Alina Bychkova

Alina Bychkova has nearly completed her PhD thesis ‘Understanding climate change narratives in Central Asia: science, politics and media discussions’ at Nottingham Trent University. She co-published ‘Kazakhstan’s climate change policy: reflecting national strength, green economy aspirations and international agenda’, Post-Communist Economies,34:7,894-915,DOI: 10.1080/14631377.2021.1943916

View of a valley with fast flowing river and yurt homes

What is your PHD and how is it going?

My PhD is in Political Science and International Relations, however I would say the topic, well, it’s quite unique in the area, studying climate change, discourse and policies in Central Asia. So I think it’s very interesting, because climate change is a real issue and then what we know about it is how people talk about it, so, I’m curious to see how / what are the narratives in these countries, the governments and the fossil fuel economies affect that narrative and hopefully by understanding that narrative we can really make sense out of how they can develop their economies and policies

How other countries create for them at the global level. So that was great – so basically finishing my project, it’s my final year, a little bit left so I already done all empirical studies, just need to write some conclusions and discussions, and there were ups and downs, definitely but here I am.

Mountains and rocky valley with yurts by the side of the river

Where was your field work?

So my fieldwork was highlight of my project of course but it was maybe the most, I had three countries – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, they are quite far away and I had never been there before, so they are actually very different. So I went to Kyrgystan then 2 weeks in Uzbekistan, there it was summer, June and lot of challenges there, not only need to get data, conduct interviews but you also don’t know anything around and I was alone so it was quite challenging to make the best out of it, to use my opportunities that I got. So I was trying to meet policy makers, scientists then going alone to national parks and hiking, it was challenging and then it was really hot as well.

In Kyrgystan I was in Bishkek then Issyk-Kul lake which is like a landmark. So Bishkek was not a problem but very polluted, people don’t worry about climate change because they worry about pollution. And then I went to Uzbekistan. It was incredibly hot, I had a conference there but highlight was making friends with people from the Geography department in the national university of Uzbekistan and went with them and some people from UNDP Japan, we went to the Aral Sea, which is famous.

Boats and a cow on the bed of the Aral Sea (now sand only)

And we were trying to implement a project, how to grow sustainable crops and I had never ever seen such a dry land, all covered in white which was salt, due to the heat. People trying to grow things there, it was so impressive I will remember it forever, probably.

What kind of crops?

There was a sustainable gardening project, mainly they want to do medical herbs and honey, cultivate the land, people can use the things which are nice. In the middle of Aral in Uzbekistan, there is like a fish growing farm, we went inside, to be honest, it did not look that pretty. I would not eat fish maybe, there is no water but they still care and produce fish for themselves… this is such a great initiative with really hard work put in. I was talking to the farmers working there in +45 degrees heat and so dry. They just plan to grow something, they said its hard. I asked if they ever considering moving, emigrating from here? And they looked at me as if they wondered what I am talking about ! Its our land

Its amazing so we talk about climate migration, many people they are very much grounded… very interesting

Female farmers looking after crops

Also there is a very good project going on, a lot of international organisations, for example like German private business, from Germany. He established there, the sustainable farm, always with amazing technology so in the middle of nowhere, the desert, there are farms, lots of apples and peaches, lots of investment.

Fruit and herbs stall including very large watermelons

Then Kazakhstan last thing, I didn’t see so much naturewise because it was winter but I fully experienced the continental climate, how cold it was there -28 and so windy. It was like incredible and it was really interesting about I could see all about Nazarbayev the president, his very famous self-pride, proud of green development – there were advertisements, billboards everywhere. I went to the museum of Nazarbayev, so in the national museum of Kazakhstan, all the first floor was just about him. Then the experts I have met, and the Future Energy museum – very impressive – I’ve never seen such a museum so they, maybe it’s partly for the image but nonetheless whatever the intention, their efforts are amazing.

Have you found out what you thought you would?

Yeah I think I found what I expected to find but lots of new stuff from where I had not that much expectations as the research area is not widely explored. So I found lots of interesting stuff, for example in some countries where they going to be very influenced by the state and then you see criticism of the state expressed by media and citizens.

These countries feature clearly fossil fuel economies and they do not part with that just yet…but then the policy makers are really, seem to be caring about adaptation,about climate change, I was doubting that when talking to policymakers…but yes this intent looked real to me. They want to change but at the same time they don’t want to part with fossil fuels How they see that, I’m not sure they know themselves.

Salt crystals across the soil

Do you think this is because of a transition but it’s not as easy …

The main ideas behind fossil fuel not even economic growth, not even the first thing they say – social security, because lots of people are employed in these industries e.g. coal which is one of the dirtiest industries but nonetheless it’s available fuel, always have it and easier to talk about green energy in this country or European country where it’s warmer. When it’s -28 we have to heat our houses, it’s so important and there is lots of coal around so let’s use it, it’s bad but again, lots of people are employed in the industry.

So it’s very hard to find common ground with them to see if they can step away from this, eventually planning to get rid of coal. There are big aspirations to swith to renewables and with that said to be closer with the international communities, and those arising opportunities … on the other hand there are benefits hard to part with exporting fossil fuel to European countries for example.

Overall, when it comes to action, it’s harder. It’s a big contradiction.

Three men in discussion on rocks on high mountain pathways

And what are you planning to do next?

I have ideas but not decided yet, I am thinking about… at the moment I am teaching part-time in the university, it’s what I love, it’s my highlight so I want to carry on with research but teaching as well. So I’m looking for fellowships, new lectureships – it would be amazing but I know it’s very competitive so we will see how it goes. I want to combine my existing research.

Regarding the research, I’ve been thinking that I’ve been doing climate change for very long and environment overall since my Bachelors degree, now thinking to refocus a bit, look into Central Asia and politics with post-Soviet identity and maybe not so specifically about climate change. We will see how it goes – if there’s a great project and it was climate change then of course I would do but I would like to broaden to include Post Soviet context and maybe with energy related research

Cow and calf in a mountain valley

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