|Glaciers cover more than four per cent of Kyrgystan, and scientists say the ice is melting [GALLO/GETTY]
Kyrgyzstan's glaciers are receding at what scientists say is an alarming rate, fuelled by global warming.
And while experts warn of a subsequent catastrophe for energy and water security for Kyrgyzstan and neighbour states downstream reliant on its water flows, devastation to local ecosystems and the effects on plant and wildlife could be just as severe.
"Animals and vegetation will not be unaffected and the risks for some species will be great," Ilia Domashov, deputy head of the BIOM Environmental NGO in Bishkek, said.
More than four percent - 8,400 square kilometres - of Kyrgyzstan's territory consists of glaciers.
A natural process of water release from summer melting of the glaciers, which freeze again during the winter, feeds many of the country's rivers and lakes.
Up to 90 per cent of water in Kyrgyzstan rivers comes from glaciers, local experts claim.
This flow of water is not just important to energy needs and farming, it also feeds interconnected ecosystems providing habitats for some of the world's most diverse flora and fauna.
Kyrgyzstan's biodiversity is among the greatest in the region and stretches through a variety of climatic habitats, ranging from glaciers to subtropical and temperate ecosystems.
Although it only covers 0.1 per cent of the world's landmass, Kyrgyzstan is home to one percent of its species, according to reports submitted by the government to UN bodies.
A number of species are found only in Kyrgyzstan with endemic species and subspecies including over 200 plant species, more than 3,000 invertebrate species and 17 vertebrate species, as well as a further 47 sub-endemic vertebrates.
The country is home to some of the world's rarest animals, such as the Marco Polo sheep, the Himalayan brown bear and the Siberian ibex, as well as the endangered snow leopard, whose habitat is closely linked to the glaciers.
The glaciers are a driving force behind these "unique" ecosystems in the region, scientists say.
"These glaciers are part of often unique mountain ecosystems. In some places one can go from a dry desert to lush green pastures in the space of two hours' drive. Glaciers are driving much of that," Dr Stephan Harrison, associate professor of quaternary science at the University of Exeter in the UK, said.
But scientists in Kyrgyzstan and at international climate monitoring bodies say that the glaciers have receded by as much as 35 per cent in the 20th century and the melting is becoming more rapid.
According to the Institute of Hydro Energy at the National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek the glaciers are now receding at a rate more than three times as in the 1950s.
Some groups say they have observed glaciers shrinking by 50 metres a year.
Local experts say glaciers have their own ecosystems.
Their melting water flows into the soil which affects vegetation which acts as food for animals at lower altitudes, some of which are prey for other animals and so on.
"Certain animals are deeply connected to the glaciers, such as the snow leopard, and they will be affected by the rapid melting. What will happen is that in the short term the level of underground water will rise but in the long term it will actually fall as glaciers disappear and this will have an impact on ecological systems around rivers," BIOM's Domashov said.
There are other serious threats to ecosystems from the process. As glaciers melt large deposits of sediment are deposited in valleys below.
This affects the local land and rivers and their existing ecosystems.
Glacial melting can also lead to huge floods as natural dams formed by the ice burst, sending lethal torrents down mountains and destroying entire forests.
There have also been warnings from local experts that the melting of the glaciers, combined with a predicted rise in temperatures, will lead to an increase in desertification.
The BIOM group told IPS studies it had been involved in predicted that climate change behind glacial melting could see a shifting of entire ecological belts with the altitudes of deserts, steppes, meadowlands and mountain regions shifting between 100 and 400 metres.
One of the country's most prominent areas of biodiversity is the Issyk-Kul Lake.
At an altitude of 1,600 metres in the Tien-Shan mountains in the north of Kyrgyzstan it is the world's second largest high mountain lake.
It has no water outlets and the rivers which flow into it are fed primarily by glacial waters.
It has over 20 species of fish in the lake alone.
A host of species live in the diverse landscapes around the lake which range from arid semi-deserts to the Tien-Shan mountain range - which is home to an estimated over 4,000 different native plant species.
The lake itself is also an important stop for migrating birds and as many as 80,000 water birds gather around it for wintering.
But its ecosystem could also be put in jeopardy by glacial melting.
Water level changes in the lake recorded in the last decade have been put down to melting glaciers.
Both falling and rising lake levels have been reported and some plant species have been destroyed by the changes to the water level.
In other cases the lake has been polluted as shoreside buildings were flooded and then toxins washed back into the lake.
In other areas locals say that they are already seeing the effects of glacial melting on the environment.
Farmers say rivers once fed by glaciers have begun to dry up and plants are dying out from lack of water in some areas.
Shepherds have told local media that they can no longer see some glaciers on mountains.
In Kyrgyzstan's submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, published last year, it was predicted that the country's glaciated area would recede by up to 95 per cent over the next century.
"Some of the glaciers will have gone by the end of our lifetimes. We must accept a degree of global warming now whatever we do because of all the CO2 in the atmosphere. All we can do is hope that it can be limited," Dr Harrison said.
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.