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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 our children"

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 water.

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 significant funding.
 

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 resources.

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