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Biomes and Regions of Northern Eurasia

The Mountains of Central Asia and Kazakhstan

<<< Mountainous Biota | Biomes & Regions Index | Lake Baikal: Introduction >>>

Mountains and People: Past, Present, and Future

The Central Asian mountains are rich in natural resources including deposits of metallic ores, coal, and hydrocarbons. Recently, most attention has been given to water resources. First, hydropower is the most important component in energy generation and hydropower stations on the mounatinous rivers Varzob, Chu, Naryn, Vaksh, and in the upper course of the Syrdarya generate over 60 million kilowatts. Second, rivers, which begin in the mountains, provide water for irrigation on the plains and support a population of over 40 million people (Kovalev, 1996). With the ongoing environmental crisis in the Aral Sea (see below) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, water availability and quality has become crucial for the political and economic development of the newly independent Central Asian states (Smith, 1995).

The southern position of the mountains provides for the development of agriculture. Thermal resources are abundant and water is more plentiful than on the plains, but a shortage of land suitable for cultivation restricts the development of arable farming. Traditional communities adapted to this and used different agricultural practices in different altitudinal belts and accounted for the specific features of slopes. Although steep slopes were extensively cultivated, soil erosion was limited. Traditional practices, such as terracing, attempts at afforestation of slopes, and planting trees along irrigation canals (aryk), helped to limit erosion and irreversible water loss. The key factor in maintaining sustainable agriculture was an ancient system of resource management which included a set of rules limiting land and water use, control over their implementation by elected representatives, and penalties for non-compliance. However, the situation was not entirely placid and competition for land between representatives of the state, landlords, religious organizations, and farmers resulted in both social and environmental conflicts. Probably the most serious environmental problem was that of deforestation. By the end of the 19th century, in many regions woody vegetation had been cleared in the belt between 1300 m and 1500 m and replaced by dry savannahs. Steeper slopes and distant less productive fields were cultivated by poor members of the community who could not invest in protective measures or leave land fallow, which then led to the degradation of soils.

Although even before the 20th century erosional badlands occurred in the Central Asian mountains, as for example in the Tajikabad region where 40-70 per cent of slopes were exposed to erosion (Merzlyakova, 1996), the development of erosion reached much greater proportions in the second half of the 20th century with the onset of large-scale agricultural development. At present, the Fergana, Turkestan, and Alaysky Ridges are subject to strong human impact (Mamytov, 1980). The Soviet demographic policy aimed at relocation of population from small mountainous villages, which often occurred in zones of high seismic activity, to larger settlements in the lower mountains played a negative role, first, through the increasing pressure on the low mountain environment, and second, because secondary species spread into the abandoned agricultural land and erosion intensified as the maintenance of anti-erosion measures ceased. The practice of seasonal cattle migration between high-and low-altitude pastures also changed. Traditionally, private herds were relatively small and both routes and timing of migration were flexible and could be changed according to the availability of fodder and condition of pastures. State farms introduced a much more rigid framework, herds became larger and in many regions the capacity of pastures to support livestock declined.

Following the collapse of the FSU, the Central Asian mountains have become an arena for numerous political conflicts. Decline of regional economies, widespread incompetence and the corruption of administration, rapid outmigration of skilled labour, and growing poverty are the reality of today. Increasing environmental degradation and, in particular, the scarcity of water resources, exacerbated by a lack of international legislation and poorly defined borders of the newly independent states, add to political instability and an escalating economic crisis. There is an urgent need to restructure the local economies to make them more sustainable and to provide an environmental balance that was distorted in previous years. However, given the current political turmoil, attaining this goal may be difficult.

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