Desertification is defined as irreversible land degradation caused by human activity which is undermining the wellbeing of two-fifths of humanity, raising risks of migration, conflicts and poverty. It costs the world as much as $10.6tn every year, equivalent to 17% of global gross domestic product. 5bn people live in areas where threats to water security are likely. Climate change, population growth and human activities will only aggravate this process.
Southern Russia has been recently identified by NASA’s GRACE project as one of the “hot-spots” of desertification worldwide. The root of this problem can be found in the area’s croplands so vital to Russia. Crop fields’ water demand intensified by droughts is draining Volga river with relevant consequences on the Caspian sea.
In Russian folklore Volga river is mother and mistress, its basin is home of 40% of country’s population and it provides half the agricultural production of the nation. It’s waters are what regulates Caspian sea’s level, which with its rich reservoir of oil (48bn barrels) and gas (8.2 tn m3) plays a key role in the global geopolitical panorama.
What is undergoing now at the mouth of Volga mirrors the circumstances that doomed the Aral sea in the second half of the past century. In the 50s Soviet government diverted the flow of two rivers to provide irrigation for cotton production leading at the almost complete drying. Caspian sea is much bigger than Aral and, although it will take thousands of years to drain, this phenomenon will add to the already critical situation of the area, where overfishing and pollution are endangering life in its waters.
Being an isolated body of water Caspian sea’s levels are largely affected by rain, evaporation, and inflow, 80% of which comes from Volga river. Increasing diversion and withdrawal of water from Europe’s biggest river caused the loss of almost 24bn tons of water per year, pulling down the sea level for about 1.4 meters in the last 20 years.
The history of land development in the area is dramatically related with the political history of Russia. In the nineteen-fifties, Soviet central government decided to capitalise on the grazing opportunities in the black lands of Kalmykia, one of the least known and poorest Russian republics located in the southern region of the country. After thirteen years of exile from their land, Kalmyk people were allowed back on their homeland by Khrushchev to develop a new agricultural program which involved the introduction of more than a million new merino sheep inside the delicate dry-area. The region would become a national pride, providing soviet republics with food and clothes.
Sadly the fragile topsoil and insufficient grass availability couldn’t survive the sharp sheep hooves grazing the area. In 1993 the president of the Kalmyk Republic declared a state of emergency and the Chernye Zemli (Black lands) were officially recognised by UN as an environmental disaster area.
Kalmykia became Europe’s first man-made desert.
Overexploitation of land, exposed by spreading desertification, reveals the flaws behind the ideological motivations that fuel this slow but baleful process. Either pushed by Soviet planned economy or liberal free market, conversion/re-conversion into cropland, overgrazing and pasture abandonment, mining and fossil hydrocarbons extraction, over-exploitation and poaching, are fuelling a positive drying feedback that is accelerating water losses and its related socioeconomic issues.
Southern Russia is just a sample of the worldwide irreversible process of land degradation, which intensity and specifics vary following the decisions of many of those who benefit the most from over-exploitation of natural resources and are least affected by the direct negative impacts of Desertification. A process that will lead to a separation between the water -haves- and -have nots-.
One cannot underestimate the significance of sustainable land-use practices to prevent desertification and to preserve ecosystem equilibrium.
After all, land is the source of our food.