TAMING A BOUNDLESS EXPANSE
The Central Asian steppe forms the middle section of an enormous chain of plains called the Eurasian Steppe that stretches from western Hungary to Mongolia. Long an area of fascination, it conjures up images of nomadic hordes—fearless mounted archers who thundered across the land to subdue the civilizations of the now People's Republic of China, South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. To these conquerors, the steppe was a boundless sea that provided a thoroughfare for movement, enabling them to expand traditional homelands across continents in pursuit of empire.
Steppes are the product of continental climate characterized by low and unstable precipitation. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) categorizes steppes by ecoregions, differentiating them by flora and fauna as well as such attributes as climate, elevation, and rainfall. The Central Asian steppe is made up of a variety of steppe types—low mountain desert steppe, mid-altitude mountain steppe, mountain xerophyte steppe, mountain grassland with shrub steppe, semidesert steppe, shrub and brushwood steppe, and forest steppe. The Alai-Western Tien Shan steppe of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, for instance, is a foothill and low-mountain region blanketed with forbs, tall grasses, and juniper and wild pistachio forests. It contains a wide variety of fauna, including mountain sheep and wild cats.
Another steppe type is the Tien Shan foothill arid steppe of Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, which breaks westward from the Tien Shan mountains. Moist arctic air spilling in from western Siberia enables it to support meadows and spruce forests, plus a full range of mammals, including the rare ibex and snow leopard. The steppe in eastern Kazakhstan offers still another terrain, one that includes significant wetlands and forest vegetation, such as birch, birch-aspen, and pine.
Most impressive of all is the Kazakh steppe—the largest dry steppe region in the world. Before being targeted for massive cultivation in the 1950s, it consisted of a continuous belt stretching from the Altai foothills in the east to the Ural River in the west. The Kazakh steppe is a windy expanse that receives 250–300 millimeters of precipitation a year, and is known for hot and dry summers and cold winters with little snow accumulation. It is geologically diverse, with gentle hilly plains, plateaus, and flat low plains. Large rivers, including the Irtysh and Ural, cross the region, and it is dotted with numerous shallow lakes. The Kazakh steppe is noted for its grasslands, fescues, and wild oats.
THE STEPPES AND HUMAN INFLUENCE
Historically, Central Asia's steppe has been used by nomadic herders for grazing and growing fodder and small grain. It has also supported hunting and fishing. But though the steppe is still used as rangeland, much began to change in the 1950s when the former Soviet Union installed its Virgin Land Scheme to develop virgin and fallow land. The scheme introduced heavy cereal cultivation putting huge areas of steppe and forest-steppe to the plow for wheat production. Between 1950 and 1960, in Kazakhstan alone, the cultivated area increased from 7.8 million to 28.5 million hectares. Enormous steppe deterioration followed, so much so that millions of hectares of land plowed for wheat were eventually abandoned. Thanks, however, to heavy seeding with grasses and perennials, such as feather grass, wheat-grass, and wild rye, some of this land has been recovered. Still, research by the Kazakh Fodder and Pasture Institute suggests it could take 30 years for these abandoned steppe lands to fully recover.
Uzbekistan's Alai-Western Tien Shan steppe region, home to a significant percentage of the country's population, has been similarly altered. Plowing has occurred in virtually every area suitable for crops. Overgrazing has affected rangeland. Agriculture poses additional threats to steppe grassland and forests, especially fires caused by the burning of straw that could be better used as animal fodder. Once started, these fires are long-lasting and can spread quickly over large areas. Extractive industries have contaminated soil and water and destroyed vegetative cover. Some natural rehabilitation has taken place. However, primarily due to a recently declining economy, some farmers have abandoned their dry steppe fields, allowing the land to rest.
PROTECTING THE STEPPES
Protecting the steppes for future generations will take much work. Numerous efforts are now under way. Rehabilitation of the Golodnaya Steppe, or Hungry Steppe, in Uzbekistan using salt-tolerant plants for reclaiming abandoned saline soil has proven to be an effective means of bringing such soil back to production. Another approach is improving feed and livestock production technologies; promising technology includes crop rotation for production of fodder and silage. Better water management has also brought considerable benefit to the steppes. In the 1960s, a notable example was the integrated water resources management—combining the interests of all water users and water resources—of the canals of the Golodnaya Steppe and later the main canal systems of the Karshi Steppe and other irrigation zones.
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