Deserts Advancing, Civilization Retreating. (Environmental Watch)

By Larsen, Janet | The Humanist, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Deserts Advancing, Civilization Retreating. (Environmental Watch)


Larsen, Janet, The Humanist


The coalition forces which advanced northward from Kuwait to Baghdad traversed the site of the world's first civilization--ancient Sumer. More than five thousand years ago, the Sumerians inhabited the rich land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers--part of the legendary Fertile Crescent. There they developed a sophisticated irrigation system, built the first cities, devised a written language, and invented the wheel.

Yet the Fertile Crescent as now seen in press coverage of the war in Iraq appears to be anything but fertile. Strong winds ripping across the dusty floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates and the surrounding area catch fine dust and sand, creating choking storms that impede movement, impair visibility, and threaten human health. Once-fertile land is now desert.

Unfortunately, this situation isn't unique. The pressure of the world's 6.2 billion people is slowly turning productive land into desert on every continent. Cultivation of marginal land has eroded soils, while some three billion cattle, sheep, and goats have pushed pastures beyond their sustainable limits. All told, desertification plagues up to one-third of the Earth's land area, affecting more than one billion people in 110 countries.

Although deserts regularly expand and contract, the acceleration of human-induced desertification is fast undermining rural economies. Each year, deserts claim millions of hectares of cropland and rangeland. Africa--with almost half its land area at risk--is most vulnerable, but satellite images and on-the-ground reports confirm that desertification is widespread throughout the world's drylands.

In the Sistan basin shared by Afghanistan and Iran, windblown dust and sand have buried more than one hundred villages. A former oasis that only five years ago supported at least one million cattle, sheep, and goats is now nearly barren. As overgrazed pastures turn to sand, hundreds of thousands of livestock have perished, and villagers have abandoned the area.

To the north, along Afghanistan's Amu Darya River, destruction of protective vegetation has exacerbated the effects of drought and allowed the formation of a sand dune belt that is some 300 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. These dunes, moving up to one meter per day, are blocking roads and swallowing villages no longer shielded by local forests.

In Kazakhstan, overtaxed farmland is being abandoned as productivity falls. Overplowing of marginal land during a Soviet attempt to boost grain harvests in the 1950s led to widespread wind erosion of soil. Since 1985, Kazakhstan has abandoned half of its twenty-five million hectares of grain land.

In China, desertification threatens the livelihoods of millions and racks up direct annual economic losses of roughly $6.5 billion, including the cost of reduced farm productivity. A report from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, entitled Desert Mergers and Acquisitions reveals that in northwest China, prolonged dry weather, overgrazing of pastures, and rampant harvesting of wild plants have loosened sand on the edges of the country's third- and fourth-largest deserts. Strong winds are pushing destabilized dunes southward from the five-million-hectare Bardanjilin Desert toward the three-million-hectare Tengry Desert, literally laying ground for a merger.

A similar situation exists in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Excessive upstream dam building and water withdrawals for agriculture have dried up the Tarim River. As a result, large poplar groves and other vegetation that once served as a barrier between the Taklamakan and Kumtag Deserts have died off. Now the two deserts are moving steadily toward each other, and they too may merge.

These problems aren't isolated, nor are they purely local in scope. Massive dust storms originating in China and Mongolia have traveled as far east as the continental United States. Two countries directly in the path of the suffocating dust--Japan and South Korea--have teamed up with China to promote rehabilitation of the degraded lands that feed these ocean-traversing storms.

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