Albion Monitor /News

Europe's First Desert in the Making

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

About 80 percent of one Russian republic affected by desertification
(IPS) MOSCOW -- While Russia hesitates over signing the Convention to Combat Desertification, Europe's first desert is growing on the steppe between the Volga and Don river basins.

In the heart of the Kalmyk Republic of the Russian Federation, historically the driest region in the European part of Russia, an estimated 82.7 percent of Kalmyk land is affected by desertification and 47.3 percent faces severe or very severe problems.

"This (problem) is surpassed only by the deserts of Central Asia," says Emma Gabunshina, Kalmyk minister for the protection of the environment and natural resources.

"Degradation of the once unique pastures of the Black Lands of the Republic has led to the first man-made desert in Europe, with areas of open and blown sand."

Satellite photographs confirms that large quantities of sand are blown well past the boundaries of the Republic during dust storms, reaching the borders of European countries beyond Russia.

Vast areas were destroyed by road construction and irrigation led to water-logging and salinization of the soil
In 1993, Kalmyk President Karsin Ilyumzhinov declared a state of emergency in response to environmental deterioration caused by land degradation, a shortage of water, and the increasing human load on the natural environment over the past few decades, compounded by extreme natural conditions.

"This is causing a decline in the health of the population and falls in both life-expectancy and the quality of life. These, in turn, threaten the gene pool of the Kalmyk people," Gabunshina points out. Life expectancy in the cities has fallen by 12.3 years over the past decade to under 60 years.

Kalmykia has been settled by different nomadic tribes. The Kalmyks arrived in the sixteenth century and began breeding camels, cattle and fat-tailed sheep.

The flat hooves of these sheep did not damage pasture grasses. However, at the end of the nineteenth century small farms began to spring up and after 1917 big agricultural collective farms appeared.

Stock-breeding was reoriented towards fine fleece sheep-breeding with camels and cattle reduced from 40 percent to just 6.7 percent of the total. Fine fleece sheep have sharp hooves which destroy vegetation. Large scale farming brought with it massive irrigation programs while industrialization saw the start of mining.

These changes in agriculture structure and traditional land-use began the process of desertification. Vast areas were destroyed by road construction and irrigation led to water-logging and salinization of the soil. Some 40 settlements now suffer from water-logging.

Desertification is worse in the eastern regions, forcing people to migrate to the west of Kalmykia. As a result, the republic has a negative population growth despite the high birth-rate of 2.5 to 3.2 children per woman. About 2,700 people are leaving each year to other parts of Russia.

Following the declaration of a state of emergency, the United Nations Environment Program (UNDP) provided some support to the National Action Program to Combat Desertification in the Kalmyk Republic, which was drawn up in line with the main principles of the international United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification.

"The Program developed in Kalmykia, largely through the efforts of locally-based scientists, has been approved by the government," says Gabunshina. "The next task is to ensure that the Program is smoothly integrated into the Republic's plans for social and economic development."

One of the Program's projects is the creation of a European Aridity Center. "We are considering setting up a European Aridity Center in Kalmykia as one way of addressing the problem as it affects European countries.

"One important argument in favor of this is that our unique natural environment is unmatched in the world as an opportunity to preserve the steppe region gene pool, a genetic data bank for the planet. Besides, it makes sense to site a center to combat desertification in the place where it is most needed," she says.

The idea is supported by Russian and foreign scientists, and was approved by the Russian Academy of Sciences in November 1995. She sees the proposed center as the European link in a larger, international system.

However, she adds, "It is very unfortunate that Russia has not yet become a signatory to the Convention to Combat Desertification, though this is still under consideration."

"If this process is not halted, Europe could share the fate of Africa"
The problem stretches far beyond the Kalmyk Republic. Across the Federation as a whole, over 100 million hectares are either affected by desertification or are threatened by it. Desertification processes are already well under way in the Astrakhan, Volgograd and Rostov regions, the Altaikrai (autonomous district) and the Republics of Tyva and Dagestan.

Areas of the Krasnodar krai and the Stavropol krai have also been affected. Areas under threat include land in the southern part of the steppe zone in the Voronezh, Saratov, Orenburg, Omsk, Chelyabinsk and Chita regions, and in the Republics of Khakasia and Buryatia.

Nevertheless, Russia has already implemented a wide range of measures to prevent land degradation and drought.

Work is going on in the Astrakhan region, the Dagestan Republic and the Kalmyk Republic to implement the new "General Plan to Combat Desertification of the Black Lands and the Kizlyar Pastures." Meanwhile in Volgograd the Institute of Forest and Land Improvement is developing several programs.

"By presidential decree, large-scale planting operations are carried out every spring and autumn in desertified areas in the Kalmyk Republic, much work is being done to optimize the network of protected natural areas, Gabunshina explains.

President Karsin Ilyumzhinov has also announced an initiative to set up an Association of Arid Regions of Russia and to establish a Special Federal Program to protect areas of the Russian Federation from the processes of degradation.

"The aims are to stimulate action to combat desertification at a Russian level, to improve the effectiveness of measures aimed at agreeing National Action Programs and to draft recommendations for creating and implementing a sub-regional, regional and joint Action Program for Russian conditions in line with the United Nations Convention," she says.

"The proposal has been warmly welcomed in the other regions of Russia that are worried about the state of their land." She says it is important to understand that the first European desert is no longer a myth. "It is a reality. If this process is not halted, Europe could share the fate of Africa."

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Albion Monitor June 22, 1997 (

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