The Greening of Uzbekistan

Michael H. Glantz
21 August 2003

The Greening of Uzbekistan

The color green has many definitions these days. It takes on different meanings, depending on its context. For the notion of the "greening of Uzbekistan," I have in mind three of those meanings. The first relates to "green" as shorthand for money. Slang for American dollars, for example, is "greenbacks." The second relates to the color of the landscape's vegetative cover, which can be made green wherever water can be made to reach the dry but fertile lands of the Karakum and Kyzlkum Deserts. Such a presence of water would produce vegetation. The third use of green is in reference to grassroots environmental movements and a more general belief that environmental sustainability matters.

I suggest that, by paying due respect to the three greens noted above, Uzbekistan can reverse several aspects of its existing trends of environmental degradation and food insecurity that result from human activities. At the same time, it can address the very serious issue of the seemingly inevitable increase of poverty.

There are, however, some important points to keep in mind. Deserts, real deserts where rainfall is extremely low (technically, below 100 mm annual precipitation) and evaporation rates very high, are the result of natural processes. The ascending motion of the atmosphere at the equator must descend somewhere at the relatively higher latitudes, and that "somewhere" is a belt of arid lands that girdle the globe - from the Sahara to the Arabian Peninsula, across greater Central Asia and extending into the western part of China. Ascending motion of the atmosphere is a precondition for cloud formation and its consequent rainfall. Descending motion tends to kill cloud formation and therefore the possibility of reliable and substantial amounts of precipitation. There is also a considerable range of vegetation types that exist in the broader desert environment (hyperarid to arid to semiarid). It may not be the type of vegetation that societies like or prefer to see or can use directly or indirectly, but it shows that various types of vegetation have adapted to and can flourish in such a seemingly harsh drylands environment. Interestingly, throughout history civilizations and traditional cultures (i.e., nomadic, pastoral, and oases societies) have learned to live and flourish in such an environment.

Green as Money

Uzbekistan is a relatively poor land-locked country in the midst of Central Asia. It was part of the Soviet Union along with the other Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgystan. Uzbekistan gained independence at the end of 1991 as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism. Since then, it has pursued an economic development strategy that has required a large infusion of American and other foreign economic developmental and humanitarian assistance.

Recent studies about the standards of living of the Uzbek population show that there are many people, especially in the rural areas, who are living under conditions of abject poverty. Its population at 26 million is the largest of the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union. Its population growth rate is relatively high at 1.63% per year. Donor agencies have recently come together to figure out which activities that they might support with funds to reduce poverty by 50% in the Central Asian region by the year 2015.

Uzbekistan's high population growth rate is putting increasing pressure on its fixed, if not dwindling, water supply. This is a dangerous combination, as per-capita water availability is on the decline, already at dangerously low levels in various locations around the country, such as Karakalpakstan in the Aral Sea's disaster zone. They are in dire need of financial assistance in order to achieve sustainable development.

This "green" alone - money, that is - is not sufficient to improve the well-being of the rural population, but it is a necessary condition for economic and social development processes to begin to take hold. There will likely never be enough funds made available to Uzbekistan's poor in order to solve the poverty-related problems that exist in their local environments.

Green as an Indicator of Agricultural Productivity

Riding through the countryside in late spring, one can see the large expanses of treeless arid lands covered with wheat and cotton, two of the country's major crops. At the same time, one can also see large barren landscapes crusted with white salts and a few plants (called halophytes) that can survive in such salty soils. Large livestock herds of sheep, goats, and cows can be seen munching on whatever vegetative cover there is. The rangelands are overgrazed to varying extents by the livestock, because there are too many animals for the amount of vegetation available as fodder.

This meaning of green symbolizes the fact that the hyperarid, arid, and semiarid soils of the country are fertile but lack enough soil moisture to make them productive and to keep them sustainable in terms of agricultural activities. This is also an important "green," but again, it is not a sufficient condition for the much broader attempt at the greening of Uzbekistan. The pressures on the lands fortunate enough to receive water are already at a high level, and they are still increasing.

Green as Ecology

The color green also represents ecology and a belief in and support for environmental sustainability. This meaning of green is the name of environmentally oriented political parties (e.g., the Green Party in Germany). A principal tenet of the environmental movement is to achieve sustainable human interactions with the natural environment. Basically, it can be represented by the "precautionary principle," a principle based on restraint: take no action that might adversely affect the natural environment in the long term, the lack of scientific information notwithstanding. This is a difficult principle to put into practice, however, as there are groups in society that tend to seek gains in the short term, when adverse impacts may seem to be only slight. Over time, though, the impacts on the environment mount and produce environmental crises in the long term. What seemed sustainable from a short-term perspective proved after some time to have become unsustainable.

Concluding Thoughts

I suggest that we need to identify a proper mix of the three "greens" in order to achieve the greening of Uzbekistan. Funds are needed to support local efforts to improve land use and land productivity in the degraded lands of the countryside. Local people must receive those funds and be brought into the process in order to have the luxury of a perspective about the future, rather than being forced to focus only on day-to-day concerns about feeding their families.

Proper land management practices are already known for hyperarid, arid, and semiarid areas - the drylands. Land in such areas can be productive. However, they are sensitive to overuse, over-exploitation, overgrazing, and even to the use of too much water. Water in these areas must be used efficiently in terms of quantity, and carefully in terms of quality. What to do with the water once it has been drained from the fields is an important issue. Methods are available to deal appropriately with drainage water, but those methods must be adopted.

In the past, there was a belief that the desert is a vast environment available to develop, if only water could be found to irrigate it. But it is more than that. Now the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union are independent states, and their borders have become increasingly rigid. The states basically have to live off the resources that exist within their bounded territories, except for whatever water is allowed by upstream states to cross their borders. Much more care now must be taken by each country, and each region within that country, in using the land, water, and human resources. The human interactions with the environment are dynamic and requires periodic review; the land is fixed in amount, though some of it has been degraded to such an extent that it must be removed from production; water may be a dwindling commodity in the future, given the prospects of global warming of the atmosphere and the accelerating drawdown of groundwater; and the country's population is expanding rather rapidly, putting additional pressures on land and water quantity and quality.

Perhaps it is time for the Uzbeks (and other Central Asian Republics, for that matter) to decide what kind of country they want to have, what level of greening they would like to achieve, and to work backwards from there, identifying pathways to achieve that desired state. There is no single quick fix or proverbial "silver bullet" that can be counted on to save the day for Uzbekistan. It will require, though, vision, long-range planning, and transparency, in addition to the three "greens."

--Michael H. Glantz

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