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Mitigating desertification in Central Asia

Careful water use has not been a priority over recent decades in the Central Asian Republics (Michael Glantz)
Careful water use has not been a priority over recent decades in the Central Asian Republics
Michael Glantz

Careful water use has not been a priority over recent decades in the Central Asian Republics. Desertification now threatens large areas of the region, and there is a desperate need for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to work together to address urgent water issues. With international help, including a new project that will gather and integrate data and information to produce 'usable science', the region may have a chance of salvaging its agricultural land from the sands. But the challenges are not small.

The Central Asian Republics are situated in a highly stressed ecological area in terms of water resources. Most of Kazakhstan, for example, is classified as either arid or semi-arid desert, receiving less than 16 inches of rainfall per year. This land and climate lent itself well to light grazing as practised by the nomadic Kazaks, but the Soviets promoted a switch to crops, and water problems escalated. While Kazakhstan became one of the world's largest grain producers and exporters, water resources in the region were massively overexploited. The story is similar in the other countries, and the inevitable environmental damage is increasingly visible. The disastrous decline of the Aral Sea, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is perhaps the most infamous example - its level has declined more than 50 feet since 1960 due to the large amount of water diverted from the sea's two feeder rivers for irrigation of cash crops - but more local water-related disasters are affecting many more farmers.

'Usable science'

'An Earth Observation-Supported Strategy Linking Biophysics and Socio-Economics for Addressing Water Vulnerability' is the title of the new three-year project that will focus on Central Asia. Scientists will combine water availability data, gathered from a NASA satellite, with agricultural surveys and socio-economic data from the ground to produce 'usable science' that they hope will provide a foundation for future technology transfer programs.

Project co-investigator Michael Glantz of the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Center for Capacity Building in Boulder, Colorado describes the project as "a mix of physical, biological and social science that partly will be used to fine-tune satellite technology, to calibrate the FARM model [Future Agricultural Resources Model] and look at social issues related to improving water and land use." FARM was created by the US Department of Agriculture Economics Research Service to integrate land use, water and climate data for analysing global sustainability changes.

Solutions already exist

The level of the Aral Sea has declined more than 50 feet since 1960 (Michael Glantz)
The level of the Aral Sea has declined more than 50 feet since 1960
Michael Glantz

The project will provide integrated information that promises to be useful, but implementing solutions on the ground will require much more. Glantz points out that scientists world-wide and decision makers in Central Asia are aware of the problems which plague the region in terms of desertification, and in many cases their solutions. But regional political and ethnic rivalries, political instability, aging leaders, and non-food crop economies all present challenges to putting these into practice.

Politics aside, the environmental and economic challenges are also daunting. As well as the tragedy of the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea is under tremendous fishing and poaching pressure - especially for sturgeon, the main source of high-value caviar. In Kazakhstan, past land-use practices and inherently poor soil quality have resulted in desertification affecting a bout 60 per cent of the land. There is widespread concern that Lake Balkash in the eastern region of the country - which is slowly shrinking from evaporation and reduced inflows from its tributaries - will suffer a similar fate as the Aral Sea. And the heavy reliance on cotton in the region, along with wheat and rice - all water-intensive crops - means that changes to other less water-intensive crops may be difficult. Glantz points out that "cotton also requires a lot of pesticides and herbicides which adversely affect the environment and especially surface and ground water."

Despite these difficulties, scientists on the new project hope the integrated data will lead to more effective use of water and land in the region, whether this entails closer monitoring of water use, water conservation programmes or support for the switch to more suitable crops. Many international organisations are also taking part in programmes to mitigate desertification throughout the Central Asian Republics. For example, a Global Environment Facility project is promoting sustainable use, increased productivity and enhanced conservation of Kazakhstan's 11.5 million hectares of forest and associated rangeland resources. Additionally, the country's government is embarking on some National Action Programme projects to mitigate water-related problems.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: July 2006


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