Environment includes water, air, land, biodiversity, and natural resources existing on the planet. Preserving it should be an indispensable part of all people’s lives. However, today, due to numerous reasons, including overexploitation, population growth, improper waste disposal, deforestation, and toxic emissions into the atmosphere, the environment is under a serious threat. It is possible to witness the process of environmental degradation, which means deterioration and disintegration of the Earth through the exploitation of such resources as soil, water, and air. This notion also includes the eradication of wildlife, destruction of ecosystems and aggravation of nature. Namely, water bodies, forests, and other natural ecosystems are under threat.
It is important to understand that this is a serious process that is taking place globally, and if not addressed properly, it may lead to an environmental catastrophe. Its possible consequences can be predicted today by looking into the statistics. For example, more than 350 km2 of forests are being cut down every day, and today the world has already lost 80 percent of its original forests. Fisheries also suffer from environmental destruction since 75 percent of world’s fish stocks are either depleted or recovering. Moreover, the amount of fossil fuels is decreasing on the planet.
Even though environmental crisis affects everyone on the planet, its distribution is unequal. Namely, about 70 percent of fossil fuels are used by 25 percent of the world population. Most of all, it is attributable to the citizens of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. However, this does not mean that environmental degradation is experienced only in these countries. The evidence of it can be found all over the world. For example, the Central Asia region experiences the consequences of environmental issues as well. Thus, the region suffers from great levels of air and water contamination, water scarcity, and soil degradation. Even though the region has numerous natural resources, such as oil and gas deposits, almost half of its population suffers from poverty and does not have enough resources to sustain their livelihood. This is mostly due to the history of Central Asia, the territory of which was used for various purposes from building the nuclear testing ground to planting cotton crops. All these facts led to the environmental degradation that the region is faced with today. Therefore, a closer look should be taken at the potential threat to security and human development in Central Asia resulting from these environmental issues in order to determine possible ways to preserve the environment in the region.
Environmental Degradation as a Global Challenge
Nowadays, environmental degradation is one of the most serious dangers in the world. All environmental challenges on the planet are interconnected. For instance, soil fertility decline and water quality deterioration result in lower crop yields and decreased fish catch respectively. In addition, the environment degrades because of the destruction of natural habitats. Proper understanding of the causes and effects of environmental issues is essential for the solution of this problem.
There are many causes of environmental degradation. One of them is land disturbance. It takes place when invasive weedy plant species appear among other plants. Being foreign and obtrusive, they can take control over other species and even eliminate the local greenery. This changes the land cover of the planet and destroys the natural environment. Further, this leads to the loss of biodiversity and other negative issues. Other kind of land disturbance can be found in the Central Asian region. Its lands have been used for agriculture since the Soviet period. Despite being unfit for yielding crops, irrigation systems were built, which led to serious degradation of the environment and bad water management.
Pollution, including air, water, land, and even noise pollution, is also a cause of environmental degradation. In addition, it can be the pollution from radioactive waste, like in Central Asia, the territory of which was used as a nuclear testing ground. These issues cause health problems both to humans and animals inhabiting the polluted area. They also result in the lack of fresh drinking water and degradation of the planet’s surface. All these kinds of pollution are caused by human activities, and these effects grow every day due to the fact that the Earth’s population is increasing rapidly. The latter also puts a strain on the use of natural resources as a result of higher demand for food, water, shelter, and other essentials. Deforestation and desertification is also a cause of environmental degradation. The former is done to provide vaster areas for agricultural practices such as animal grazing and building houses for people. The latter can be a result of improper practices, such as building irrigation systems. Landfills are another cause of environmental degradation. They are extremely dangerous for the environment and, of course, for the people who live near the area of landfills. Namely, when they are burning, they produce foul smell, inhaling which is extremely harmful to health.
The harmful effects of environmental degradation are evident, but they also need to be taken into account. One of them is the impact on human health. Toxic and other air and water pollutants cause various health problems, including asthma, pneumonia, indigestion, etc. A vast number of people die every day as a result of inhaling polluted air or drinking contaminated water. The loss of biodiversity is another result of environmental degradation. Since biodiversity is essential for the planet’s climate, water sources, and life on the planet in general, its loss is an extremely serious issue. Moreover, many of the abovementioned causes lead to the increased risk of natural disasters, such as wildfires, avalanches, and storms, which, in their turn, result in environmental degradation. Many Central Asian countries suffer from the consequences of the issue.
Environmental issues also result in the damage of land cover of the planet, contamination of lakes, seas and rivers, desertification, climate change, and other aspects that are harmful not only to people’s health but also to the economy. Thus, the protection of endangered species, restoration of green cover, and other actions taken in order to protect the environment can be costly for the government. After all, the planet’s beauty is being lost in the process of environmental degradation since waste products and chemicals pollute it, damaging the natural habitats and thus affecting the species that inhabit these areas.
It becomes evident that environmental degradation is a serious threat to the planet. Further, the ecological problems will be examined more thoroughly on the particular example of countries in the Central Asia region.
Environmental Issues in the Central Asia Region
Central Asia is the region that includes the following countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This region is rich in natural resources, most of which are still unexplored. For example, mountain glaciers in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contain a large amount of water. Nevertheless, unfortunately, most of the population of Central Asia still lives in poverty, lacking natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. The countries’ wealth is believed to be unevenly distributed.
The Soviet period policies contributed to the deterioration of ecosystems in the region. First of all, numerous ecological disasters resulted from nuclear explosions that took place in the Soviet period. Today, radioactive waste that remained from that era still exerts influence on the environment and people’s health. Secondly, large-scale irrigation systems built in this period became the main reason for degradation of the Caspian and Aral Sea. Construction of these systems was explained by the need to sustain wheat, rice, and cotton crops in the Central Asian steppes. Apart from leading to the degradation of the Aral Sea, they still pose a serious threat to the region’s population. Other important issues that contributed to environmental degradation of the region are forced secularization and migration, establishment of artificial borders, and central economic planning. Most of these practices have led to desertification, the rise in sea levels, loss of vegetation, and scarcity of water resources. Indeed, intensive use of natural resources, consumption, and improper agricultural practices pose even bigger environmental risks.
The difficulty that challenges all the attempts to successfully deal with environmental problems is the infrastructure inherited from the Soviet period. It has multiple technical deficiencies, lacks capacity and resources and requires serious maintenance. In addition, it is old and no longer viable. However, being impoverished and weak, the countries of the region, cannot afford proper maintenance. Moreover, due to the growing population and weak governance, the environmental issues are becoming even more serious. Climate change as well as mudflows, droughts, earthquakes, and landslides, which are typical of the region, made their contribution, too. Therefore, the region needs disaster response organizations and communities to be involved in the problem solving.
One of the most serious environmental problems in Central Asia is the drying up of the Aral Sea, which forms a border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Its basin goes to other countries of Central Asia as well. The Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world in 1960. However, today it is on the brink of turning into a small waterhole. The drying up of the sea was caused by Soviet irrigation systems, and it is considered to be the largest human-induced environmental degradation of the 20th century. A large number of researches have been carried out on this topic; however, none of them worked out a proper solution to the issue. Thus, the problem still exists, partly due to poor coordination of the research and irresponsibility of the representatives of the Central Asia elite. This issue results, first of all, in the loss of biodiversity of the region as the species that live in the sea and depend on its water are suffering from drying up, and big populations are dying.
Even though all the Central Asian countries seem to have similar characteristics of environmental degradation, some factors are still different. Further, environmental degradation of all the countries of Central Asia will be examined separately to find the particular factors that cause them.
Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, located in the north of the region. The state has rich deposits of mineral resources, oil and gas. Kazakhstan experiences numerous ecological concerns, the most urgent of which are about water, radiation and waste. For example, the Aral Sea, which is partly located in this country, largely contributed to the environmental issues. The drying-up of the sea led to a chain reaction that subsequently touched many other fields. Those are air pollution, contamination, frequented dust storms, biodiversity loss, and desertification.
Uranium mining waste and deposits as well as the fact that the territory of Kazakhstan was used as a nuclear testing ground in the Soviet era have led to the emergence of the radiation problem. Natural radioactivity in the region has been estimated to be twice higher than average. In certain areas, toxic and radioactive pollution needs the international community’s attention. The city that suffered the most from nuclear testing in the Soviet period is Semipalatinsk, where the nuclear ground was located. Improper waste management is also an important factor since much waste is hazardous and needs to be treated wisely. However, the amount of improperly disposed waste poses a serious danger to lands and groundwater since it contaminates them with heavy metals.
Indeed, people inhabiting the areas experience the consequences of environmental degradation of the region. First of all, it resulted in serious health problems, including respiratory and other diseases linked to air pollution, radiation, and hazardous waste. Secondly, life expectancy is declining. In addition, migration became a response to the degrading natural environment.
Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly mountainous area. Although its natural resources are limited, water stored in glaciers in the mountains is an important economic resource. Nevertheless, this water is poorly managed, which creates a serious environmental concern. Thus, the biggest environmental problem for the country is irrigation used for agriculture. In addition, intensive cattle grazing contributes to deforestation and destruction of natural habitats. Another essential problem for Kyrgyzstan is large-scale metal and uranium mining. This increases the risk of natural disasters, such as landslides and earthquakes, and contaminates water and soil. This also poses a serious risk to human health. Furthermore, since Kyrgyzstan is an upstream country feeding many streams in Central Asia, water becomes contaminated in other countries as well, thus creating more health problems for people.
Tajikistan’s territory includes Central Asia’s highest peaks. The country experiences frequent earthquakes and other natural disasters, which leads to serious environmental issues. Frequent droughts influence the development of agriculture. As a result of the Soviet policy and the civil war that followed the country’s independence, land resources are degrading, clean water is limited due to poor treatment, and social problems still persist. Soil erosion, salinization issues and loss of biodiversity in wildlife as a result of deforestation and desertification are other important concerns. Due to the poor infrastructure and lack of financial resources, Tajikistan is not prepared to deal with these issues and thus continues to suffer from them.
Turkmenistan has large reserves of oil and natural gas. Water in this country is polluted by industrial and agricultural effluent, as well as by pesticides, minerals, high concentrations of salt and chemicals. The construction of dams, soil erosion, deforestation and the use of rivers for irrigation also contributed to environmental degradation. Water loss and decreasing groundwater level have a potential to lead to an ecological catastrophe in the future. The lack of water even led to conflicts with Uzbekistan over the Amurdarya, which is the most important water resource. One of the serious results of these issues is the loss of biodiversity, which is extremely important for the environment.
Uzbekistan possesses such natural resources as gas, oil, gold, and silver. Similar to other Central Asian countries, the main environmental concerns for the country are water and agriculture. The former derives from the Aral Sea catastrophe since it is partly located in the country. Extinction of fish species and desertification have posed a serious risk to Uzbekistan and contributed to climate change. Moreover, salt and dust carried from deserted areas threaten human health. Pollution in Uzbekistan is mostly caused by industry and agriculture. All these issues also led to tensions with the bordering countries and reduction of trade.
Therefore, the Central Asia region has to deal with the environmental degradation without delay. Otherwise, the legacy of past agricultural and industrial practices, combined with climate change and increasing population, will lead to even more serious issues. It is possible that some of these problems will become permanent in the future unless they are properly resolved today. Moreover, if nothing changes, lands in some regions will become unable to produce crops, and entire communities will remain without any means of survival. Needless to say, human health will be seriously threatened since the population will have little food and fresh water. Moreover, they will suffer from sicknesses that emerge as a result of improper radioactivity and other factors. This situation is also dangerous for the security of the region, both on local and national levels. Governments, in their turn, should realize that water issues in Central Asian countries are not the result of water scarcity, but of contamination and bad management.
Therefore, the governments should begin dealing with the problems of environmental degradation in Central Asia without delay. Both international environmental organizations and local authorities should be involved in the problem-solving. In order to efficiently help the region, coordination of efforts, cooperation and dialogue are essential. Governments and the elite of Central Asian countries need to pay attention to their environments and listen to the advice of international organizations that specialize in solving environmental issues. They should realize that they need to act quickly and effectively to preserve the environment for their children, who will live in these areas in future. In their turn, international organizations need to understand that local capacities of Central Asian countries are scarce, and people live in high-risk areas. Therefore, they need to come up with a plan to solve the issues and provide all the necessary help, understanding that these local environmental issues can turn into global ones some day if they are not eliminated in time. Even though realization of the plans to save the environment can turn out to be challenging, it is necessary to take all efforts to contribute to the proper management of water and other natural resources in the region.
Environmental problems are closely related to different economic, social, political, and security issues. Therefore, they need to be resolved as quickly as possible. In this case, the population of Central Asian states will get more opportunities to live a better life. Proper water management, improved agricultural practices, and global reassessment of many other factors existing in Central Asia will make an important contribution to resolving the issue of environmental degradation.
Indeed, there are many actions that people can make to save the planet. First of all, it is essential to realize and let others understand that the lives of future generations greatly depend on what people are doing now. Therefore, people have to be careful and contribute to the elimination of environmental degradation occurring globally. It is possible to stop it by providing environmental education to people and showing ways to take care of the environment. Only in this case, the environment can be saved for future generations.