Major environmental disasters hit the headlines, but in Georgia, ranked internationally at 40th out of 181 countries by the UN on vulnerability to climate change, the less noticed incidence of smaller ones is gathering momentum all too rapidly. The good news is that Georgia is not on research journal Nature Communications’ highest-risk list for melting glaciers and their submerged lakes, which threaten 15 million people globally, mainly in Asia.
Also good is that Georgia seems to be well positioned to secure help on the climate change finance front. This is clear from the latest report from the world’s largest fund helping developing countries, the UN-linked $11.4 billion Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is due to hold its 37th board meeting in Tbilisi at the end of October.
Plus, lessons are being taken from recent environmental tragedies in Racha and Guria. Ongoing EU and UN programs to build stronger monitoring systems (which had over the years declined with the collapse of the extensive Soviet systems) are being expedited.
“Over 60% of Georgia’s population lives in disaster-risk areas,” said chair of the roads department at the Georgian Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure, Giorgi Tsereteli, when opening a seven-year program in a $74 million GCF, UNDP, Swiss and Swedish-funded initiative two years ago. UNDP announced then that extreme flood events had “cost the country around $190 million a year” and total economic loss could “increase to $1.2 billion per year over the next decade.”
The ongoing plan is to expand a hydro-meteorological observation network and modeling capacities to provide reliable information on climate-induced hazards in 11 Georgian river basins. However, as the World Bank’s recent report on Charting a Course for Sustainable Hydrological and Meteorological Networks notes, “…while many hydromet development projects are well intended, it is often difficult for national governments to maintain the observational infrastructure beyond the early years of operation. National budgets will need to be increased to support upper-air stations and radar operations, along with hydrological systems.”
Mountain glaciers are posing a growing risk as their run-off often pools in shallow lakes, says the Nature Communications report, and is held back by rocks and debris. The risk comes when a lake overfills, bursting through its natural barrier and sending a torrent of water rushing down mountain valleys. According to the website for Georgia on the UN-backed World Glacier Monitoring Service: “Nowadays the country lacks fundamental and reliable quantitative information on glacier changes.”
After the disaster at Shovi, the National Environment Agency said that “the intense melting of the Buba and Tbilisi glaciers and the subsequent sediments had brought the hard deposits in the valley into dynamic, activating erosion and landslide processes, which later turned into a raging mudflow.”
Climate-change shrinking of Georgia’s glaciers (currently numbering 637, but that is declining) was 23% between 2000 and 2020, according to glaciologist Levan Tielidze as quoted by online news media JAM-news. This was caused by accelerating summer temperatures and a decline in winter precipitation. That glacier shrinkage (equivalent to 11 billion tons of water) is, he says, “four times higher than between 1911-1960 and three times higher than 1960-1986”.
There is every reason to be watchful. Forecasts for climate changes in Georgia show escalating temperatures, according to the World Bank’s Climate Smart report published last year: “Temperature changes in Georgia are projected to continue to increase significantly from the present day through to the end of the century. Under the highest emissions pathway, average temperatures in Georgia are projected to rise by 4.9°C by the 2090s, compared with a global average rise of 3.7°C.” Precipitation forecasts are highly variable over the country, the report notes, and while rainfall is likely to be lower, it is not expected to change substantially in the first half of the century. But “the intensity of daily extreme rainfall events seems to increase as the temperature rises.” Rising temperatures together with hard rainfalls also thaw the permafrost on the mountain-sides, causing soil to slide.
International finance and mitigating measures
Help to provide Georgia with more resilience via development finance commitments (from the EBRD, Germany, France, the World Bank, and the EIB, in particular) targeting climate mitigation totalled $721 million in 2016-2019 and GCF investment was $35 million. This was the most of all eastern European countries, playing an important part in strategy-building and information gathering. The GCF comments that Georgia had had early success in securing funding for large-scale projects.
However, reports from GCF and the World Bank are otherwise not entirely reassuring. They voice wide-ranging concerns for Georgia with its above-global-average projections for temperature rises, droughts, landslides and reduced river flows – bringing threats to agriculture and tourism and fights over water. The Asian Development Bank has also raised alarms, foreseeing increased water run-outs, flooding, and landslides as the mountain-side permafrost melts and the Caucasus Mountain glaciers recede. The challenge, as set out in the GCF’s report on Georgia, is not just to gather vital information on looming threats, but to organize efficient mitigating measures as soon as possible.
Ideas from two scientists include zoning to avoid building houses near glaciers, and regional monitoring networks manned by scientists. Geologist Georgy Boychenko is the zoning believer, complex though it might be to manage. He told JAM-news: “The best approach would be to establish zoning – simply delineate any valley, near any river, with red lines indicating areas where settlements are permissible and where they are not. Glacial rivers like Bubiskali or Chanchakhi are numerous in Georgia and the entire Caucasus.
“The challenge is that glaciers and human settlements are in very close proximity. To ensure effective warning systems, there needs to be sufficient distance between the point of problem detection and the arrival of a landslide or mudflow at a populated area, allowing enough time for evacuation.” Georgian regions are now zoned as being at risk of land-slides and mudflows, but many houses were first built decades ago.
According to Levan Tielidze, Professor at Ilia University and glaciologist at the New Zealand Antarctic Research Center, referring to the disaster at Shovi: “It’s impossible to precisely predict when a disaster of this magnitude will strike. When we know that we have vulnerable regions, we need to realistically assess the situation… and the state should spare no financial resources for this.
“We have many such places in the Caucasus, and we must constantly study them and know where there are particularly dangerous areas. We need to maintain continuous monitoring there.”
He advocates that the regions should have functioning regional centers, serviced by drones and small helicopters. In addition, experts should work onsite and be involved in the monitoring process, such as receiving early warnings that might come from local people indicating, for example, that a landslide might have blocked a river.
Increasing climate resilience
UNDP issued an update on its project with the Swedish and Swiss governments to engineer more climate resilience in Georgia in August. It is half-way through the program of covering almost all disaster risk zones in Georgia’s biggest river basins, and focusing on establishing a nationwide multi-hazard early warning system, facilitating risk-informed local action, and building flood-protection infrastructure.
“….the program has been working to strengthen the country’s outdated observational network. To date, more than 140 pieces of high-tech monitoring equipment – measuring wind speed, temperature variability, rain intensity, soil humidity and rising water levels – have been purchased and have begun to be installed, forming the basis of a new national multi-hazard early warning system.”
The program has also been investing in producing hazard and risk maps. Maps of seven hazards – floods, landslides, mudflows, snow avalanches, strong winds, hails, and droughts – have been prepared for the main river basins of Western Georgia (Kintrishi, Natanebi, Supsa, Enguri, Rioni, Khobistskali, Chorokhi-Ajaristskali). Risk assessment of these rivers is being carried out based on international best practices, adapted to the Georgian context, with surveys for the rest of the country planned for 2024. Enhancement of agromet advisory services is ongoing and staff are being trained.
However, the government noted in its report last year to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Georgia is one of the most difficult regions in the world in term of the development of disaster-prone geology, vulnerability, and hazard risk – 70% of the country’s territory is susceptible to risks of different sorts.”
So, increasingly it is to historical data and geological hazard mapping that policy makers are looking – the further back the better. On this basis, as a cautionary guide, the most vulnerable areas are Adjara, Guria, Racha-Lechhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, while the least are Kvemo Kartli and Shida Kartli.