Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Environmental Sins

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Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Environmental Sins

The number of dead saiga antelope keeps climbing, and National Geographic profiles the depressing saga of Aral Sea.

Following up on a few stories and highlighting some good weekend reads, your Friday Central Asia links:

On the environmental front, things don’t look great in Central Asia these days. Last week’s discovery of 100 dead saiga antelope on the Kazakh steppe ballooned to 1000, then to upwards of 20,000, and today authorities put the number at 85,000. This is hugely significant for a species WWF estimated to have a wild population of 250,000.

Kazakh authorities haven’t determined the cause–the suspect is the same as previous mass die-offs of the critically endangered ungulates, namely a bacteria called pasteurella which EJ Milner-Gulland, a UK-based academic and heads the Saiga Conservation Alliance, told The Guardian “normally kills only weaker animals that have already been stressed or sickened by something else.” Other factors to consider: the nearby, still very active, Baikonur Cosmodrome and fifty years of exploded Soviet and Russian rockets over the steppe.

On another front, the Aral Sea and the decline of the communities that once sat along its shores, serves as what Mark Synnott calls a “cautionary tale” in his feature piece in National Geographic. The story,  accompanied by photos from Carolyn Drake, outlines the history of the sea and ties its desolation to sins not just of geography and climate, but Soviet policy, cotton, and forced labor.

“Can you imagine,” says Kamalov, turning to me from the front seat of our Land Cruiser, “that 40 years ago the water was 30 meters deep [98 feet] right here.”

Our driver points through the windshield to a thick brown cloud blowing across the desert. A minute ago there was nothing there; now I’m being told to quickly roll up my window. Seconds later we’re engulfed in noxious dust that quickly infiltrates the vehicle. The dust stings my eyes, and I can taste the heavy salt, which instantly makes me sick to my stomach.

The NatGeo story also has an accompanying graphic with a timeline and satellite photos of the lake, which was once the fourth largest in the world. (The Diplomat‘s Ankit Panda wrote about the Soviet origins of the Aral Sea crisis last year.)

In other regional news, the uptick in violence in northern Afghanistan may have no small relation to the influx of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters. Chased out of Pakistan over the past year, IMU fighters are closer to Central Asia than they have been in years. Bruce Pannier at RFE/RL pieces what is known together.

Meanwhile, across the border in Tajikistan the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) finished up more than a week of military exercises that drew roughly 2,500 troops from the members (500 air-mobile soldiers from Russia, 100 from Belarus, assorted vehicles and equipment, and an unknown number of troops from Central Asia). The exercises included a scenario in which “the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion.”