The Silent Killer in Central Asia: How Environmental Degradation Leads to Societal Collapse

This paper sheds light on an often overlooked link between environmental degradation and societal collapse.

This paper sheds light on an often overlooked link between environmental degradation and societal collapse. By emphasizing how environmental disasters, from historical droughts to present-day pollution, have led to societal collapse, highlighting the need for urgent environmental action.

Environmental degradation poses serious threats to the social and economic fabric of a country or region. When environmental decline reaches extreme levels, it can disrupt essential life-supporting systems, leading to issues such as food and water scarcity, public health crises, and the displacement of populations. The economic repercussions can be significant, impacting industries, agriculture, and overall economic stability. Numerous studies have highlighted that environmental degradation is a fundamental factor leading to social collapse.

The study by Zijun Wan and Jia Han, “On the Relationship Between Societal Collapse and Environmental Factors,” underscores the critical role of megadroughts in the historical collapse of various societies. It specifically points out how prolonged droughts in regions like the Ming Dynasty, India, Darfur, and Syria led to significant agricultural failures. These environmental stresses contributed to famines and societal instability, culminating in the eventual collapse of these societies.

Similarly, George Anabui Oshoriamhe’s study in the Niger Delta reveals the far-reaching impacts of environmental degradation on social structures. Disappearing forests and oil spills aren’t merely ecological tragedies; they fracture family units, erode community leadership, and jeopardize education and gender equality. This decline not only threatens the region’s social fabric but also poses a risk to Nigeria’s socio-economic stability and potentially even global oil markets.

Further underscoring the gravity of environmental threats, Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” posits it as a key driver of societal collapse. The interplay of dwindling natural resources and political disintegration, as seen in parts of West Africa, fosters escalating conflicts and weakens state structures. This grim scenario highlights the role environmental issues play in undermining global stability.

 Another recent example of how environmental degradation is beginning to destroy the fabric of society is the Aral Sea disaster, one of the largest and most infamous global environmental disasters in recent history, which severely affected the countries and people of Central Asia. The drying up of the Aral Sea has led to increased salinity and water pollution, with serious health consequences for the local population. The number of diseases such as respiratory diseases,

hepatitis and anemia has increased dramatically. Dust and sand from the dried seabed, containing harmful herbicides and pesticides, are carried hundreds of kilometers from the sea to residential areas. The Aral Sea was an important food source, but the increased salinity has led to the extinction of more than 20 different fish species by 1983. The fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The dust and salt storms from the dried bed of the sea have led to land degradation, floral and faunal biodiversity losses, degradation of biotic communities around the delta, and climate change around the former shoreline. The environmental disaster has led to increased ecological migration. The degradation of the local economy and livelihood opportunities, such as fishing and hunting, along with the loss of cultural heritage for the local population, have resulted in increased internal and external migration. The health problems and declining living conditions have also contributed to this migration. Consequently, there has been a rise in poverty and social inequality, exacerbating the existing challenges faced by the affected communities.

The already critical environmental situation could further deteriorate and expand if timely action is not taken in Central Asia. The implementation of the Qush-Tepa Canal project by the Taliban in Afghanistan is expected to result in significant and diverse environmental impacts, many of which may be irreversible. The magnitude of these impacts is likely to extend well beyond the immediate areas of construction and operation. In this context, Dr. Eric Rudenschild’s question, “Is it too late to save Central Asia?” becomes particularly relevant to the areas downstream of the Amu Darya River. Given this scenario, the downstream countries Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in cooperation with Afghanistan, should undertake a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), complemented by the development of an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), to effectively address and manage these potential environmental problems.

If immediate measures for cross-border conservation of biodiversity are not implemented, numerous rare and vulnerable species of flora and fauna risk being lost forever, further destabilizing the current ecological balance. The Tugai forests along the Amu Darya basin are particularly at risk. Presently, the lower Amu Darya basin is experiencing environmental degradation due to water scarcity and pollution, adversely affecting its biodiversity. According to the Uzbek State Committee for Nature Protection, as much as 90% of the Tugai, a unique variety of riparian forest, has already been decimated in the Amu Darya delta. This significant loss of Tugai forests has led to a marked reduction in livelihood opportunities, especially for those dependent on cattle grazing. In the downstream section of the basin, the conservation of these Tugai ecosystems is increasingly challenged by the salinity of the irrigated runoff waters. Additionally, the construction of the Qush-Tepa canal could exacerbate this issue, potentially leading to widespread salinization that affects not only Afghanistan but also the broader region. Such an outcome would further stress the already fragile ecosystems and the economies that depend on them.

Uzbekistan recently adopted a forward-looking development strategy until 2030. This strategy includes significant environmental components, such as the ambitious goal of planting 200 million tree bushes annually and increasing forest plantations in the Aral Sea region, which are critical to improving air quality and combating desertification. However, if water resources are constrained due to the external factors like Qosh-Tepa canal project, or climate change sustaining these green areas could become challenging. The strategy must ensure adequate water supply for these green spaces, possibly through the use of treated wastewater or other non-traditional water sources.

In conclusion, the environmental situation in Central Asia, particularly Priaralie region’s ecosystem expected to have adverse environmental impact by the Qush-Tepa Canal, demands urgent collaborative action. The canal’s construction carries grave risks of lasting environmental harm and extensive salinization, endangering fragile ecosystems and livelihoods. Transboundary conservation is essential to safeguard vulnerable species and maintain ecological balance. This scenario highlights the need for thorough environmental assessments and management plans for ecological and economic stability. The failure to take immediate action could have serious consequences for the social stability of the countries affected, supporting the broader concerns expressed in the article on the link between environmental degradation and social stability.

Feruzbek Damirov
Feruzbek Damirov
Feruzbek Damirov specialises in water governance and resource management, focusing on innovative water-saving technologies. He holds a Bachelor's in Water Resources Engineering and is pursuing a Master's in Integrated Water Resources Management at the German-Kazakh University. Currently interning at the Center for Progressive Reforms, he is enhancing his skills in policy and reform initiatives. A recipient of prestigious awards and scholarships, Feruzbek is a proactive youth delegate and an advocate for climate and water issues.