Land Degradation in Central Asia: Evidence, Perception and Policy

  • Sarah RobinsonEmail author
Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)


The introduction of communism into Central Asia brought agricultural transformation on a massive scale. Irrigation projects, expansion of livestock numbers and ploughing of the northern steppe modified vegetation and soils. Despite initial censorship, in the late Soviet period resources available for the study of land degradation processes were substantial and large scale mapping projects defined uniform criteria for degradation type and severity. Scientists found that degradation of vegetation cover from grazing was widespread, although productivity losses were slight in many areas. Tighter regulation led to stabilization of forest cover. Perhaps the most acute form of degradation was soil salinization, and the related Aral Sea disaster. Independence brought economic crisis: privatization turned salaried workers into subsistence farmers, dependant on local resources for survival. The early years were characterized by ploughing of marginal land in the mountains; abandonment of steppe fields for want of machinery; collapse in livestock inventories; and increasing reliance on wood for fuel. These changes led to a new mixture of degradation and recovery processes. Yet these were poorly documented, as funding for science collapsed and trained personnel migrated or retired. Institutes came to depend on environment-focussed development projects, so incentives to keep degradation on the agenda became strong. Such projects fund little basic science—so most statistics used to justify them were based on data from the 1980s or on more recent national data unaccompanied by documentation of methodology. Some research funding became available through international scientific collaborations, which have improved our understanding of specific processes such as grazing, soil erosion and deforestation. But much of this research is case-study based and cannot be scaled up. Studies at the national or regional scale often involve time-series analysis of remotely sensed vegetation indices. These have revealed responses to climatic factors, but so far have provided only speculative documentation of anthropogenic degradation processes over large areas.


Central asia Land degradation Science policy Soviet union 



I would like to acknowledge Elmar Mamedov, who helped to obtain some of the literature reviewed here, and Carol Kerven for proof reading. The Leverhulme Trust funded my Research Associateship during the period over which this paper was written.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Ecology and EvolutionImperial College LondonLondonUK

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