The Town of the XXI Century
Series of reports on ecological situation in Central Asia
THE BORROWED PLANET
"We do not get the soil as a heritage from our ancestors, We borrow it from
Antuan de SAINT-EXUPERY
This brochure can be called "The dying planet" or "The passing
away civilization", or just "The desert". All these names can reflect equally
well the situation that is taking place in our home, which is called Planet
Earth. Moreover, these words make us to recollect works of science fiction,
where the authors describe other planets as dead deserts, over which there is
nothing else except hot winds. For a long time neither grass, nor trees were
growing on those planets and all inhabitants have left them centuries ago. On
the surface of planet Earth soils, plants, birds and animals are dying every day,
too. Every year continents lose 24 billion tons of the upper fertile layer of
soil. Agricultural lands, forests and pastures are disappearing. Dry lands
currently occupy more than third of the land's surface. Every year more than 23
million hectares of soil turn into desert.
FERTILE SOILS DISAPPEAR ALL OVER THE WORLD
Global evaluation of deterioration of soils conducted by the UN environmental
protection program, showed that within last several decades 11% of the planet's
fertile soils had been affected by erosion, filled with chemicals to an extent,
when all of the productive properties of the soils were lost. Three percent of
the soils have degraded so that it will not be possible to restore them. For
example, in Central America and Mexico more than 25% of the soils have been
affected. In some cases fertility of the soils is supported by fertilizers, but
the amounts of crops gathered from these soils are much smaller than the amounts
gathered from healthy soils. In many developing countries the continued loss of
productivity of the soils combined with the fast growth of populations leads to
production of insufficient amounts of food and lack of organic fuel. To a
certain extent, exhaustion of fertile soils has been compensated by intensive
cultivation, development of the more productive types of plants and new products
created with the help of biotechnology. But these kinds of technology are quite
expensive and only well-developed countries can afford them.
For example, China has 153 million hectares of deserts, which comprises about
16% of the country's territory. About 5% of this landmass are affected by the
natural expansion of deserts. The speed of this process constantly increases,
and it is estimated that currently expansion of deserts annually in volves more
than 200 thousand hectares. Two years ago this figure was 156 hectares per year.
About 4 million hectares of crop lands and about 5 million hectares of pastures
are affected by the expansion of deserts. It is estimated that direct economic
losses from dust storms stand at the annual level of 800 million USD.
About 7 million hectares of irrigated lands are affected by accumulation of
salt, mainly as a result of insufficient drainage or unsatisfactory supply of
Obviously, erosion of soils in China increases as time goes by. It is
estimated that the total square of soil affected by erosion has increased from
129 million hectares in 1985 to 162 million hectares in 1991.
Erosion of soils has a very significant impact on agricultural production.
For example, from 1983 till 1989 natural changes have led to a 60% decrease
in the amounts of gathered grain crops. About half of the decrease is a result
of floods and droughts, however, erosion of soils and environmental problems are
also associated with the more intensive agricultural production.
Specifically, in India exhaustion of soils and their changes have affected 85
million hectares of crop lands. Water and wind erosion, accumulation of salt,
expansion of swamps and decreased productivity have a very significant impact on
productivity of soils in this country.
WHEN THE INDIGO SEAS DRY UP
In 1930, Konstantin Paustovskii wrote an essay, which was called "Talks about
fish". Particularly, it very colorfully described the Aral Sea: "In the heat,
sand, hot fogs lies this indigo sea, filled with fish and overgrowths of reed".
So, about seventy years ago the sea was of indigo color and was filled with
fish. Now everything is totally different. It happened so that the water of two
rivers - Amudaria and Syrdaria - which for centuries supplied Aral Sea started
to be used for watering the crops. Highly heat and water consuming plants were
grown in the basins of these rivers - cotton, rice, vegetables, grapes. Soils
here are fertile and generous. To water 6 million hectares of crop lands water
is taken from Amudaria and Syrdaria. Every year rivers bring less and less water
to Aral Sea. The Sea goes further and further away from its original shores
leaving behind dry soil covered by white salt.
Until 1960 the Sea almost did not dry out. The sea began to dry out and die
after the people started to take water for watering all of the large territories.
Shallow bays were lost and the new islands appeared. Kok-Aral peninsula became
an island. Traditional habitats of fish started to disappear and the fish
discontinued their natural regeneration. Concentration of salt in the water has
dramatically increased. This lead to the decrease in the temperature level of
freezing to -2 degrees and resulted in the freezing of under-the-ice water. In
these circumstances it is very difficult for the fish to live through the winter.
Decreased water supply from Amudaria and Syrdria caused drying out of bodies
of water in the river deltas, where water animals lived among the reeds. Water
animals also started to disappear.
However, this is not all of the problem. Currently the Sea is tens of
kilometers away from its original shores. Winds blowing from the Sea catch the
salt from the dried out bottom of the Sea and carry it to the fields. These
salty winds can destroy cotton crops at the very beginning of their vegetation
period. To remove salt from the soil, it is necessary to continuously water the
soil for a long period of time. And this requires a lot of fresh water and
This is a small introduction into a big topic identified in the heading.
Death of the Aral Sea represents only one act of the drama taking place on the
territory of Kazakhstan. Scientists, researchers, politicians have got
accustomed to the language of figures and special terms. Let us try to view the
problem through their eyes.
In Kazakhstan 180 million hectares (more than 60 percent of the territory)
are turning into desert. The process of expansion of deserts, which causes soils
to become exhausted and results in mutations and disappearance of plants (scientifically
called "degradation") is taking place all over the republic. The reason for all
these events - unlimited human activities. Expansion of deserts is also
stimulated by the particularities of local clmate, soils, plants and water