Drying up the Aral Sea and creating a new Death Valley, a new Dead Sea

Watching the fire die after supper, I heard what seemed like owls and coyotes calling to each other.  Probably just a bunch of loquacious owls, but one can always dream.  No shortage of night sounds at Meadowcreek.  All manner of insect, amphibian and mammal are making themselves known.

280px-Pamir_Mountains,_Tajikistan,_06-04-2008Such a contrast to the complete and utter night silence early this morning in the Delta.  A combination of drought and industrial agriculture has stilled all the natural voices.  It is graveyard quiet in the Delta these days.  Even the coyotes seem less tallkative.

Or maybe its just that it’s cold in the mornings these days (teetering close to the 30s at Meadowcreek).  I’d rather blame it on industrial ag and its chemicals, but I could be a little bralnwashed by the organic types I hang around.  My farmer friends from the Grand Prairie might point out that its really quiet on cold mornings at Meadowcreek, too.

The drive from the Delta to Meadocreek featured brown tree after brown tree. Lack of rain means no color this fall in most of Arkansas.  (What’s with this weather, anyway?  Why can’t those smart meteorologists on TV figure this weather pattern out?  I guess they are spending too much time on their hair and outfits and not enough studying chaos theory and the complex adaptive system which is life.)

Just a few maples in well-watered front yards were showing any color.  And then, out of nowhere, the road veered into this valley of seeps and springs where the colors are vibrant.  And everything is alive.

Until you look closely, the valley seems really dry.  I know that’s what I thought when I first saw it in 1995.  The county road blows up dust on the few tourists who know how beautiful our valley is this time of year.   That’s because the  moisture mostly flows down through the root zone to the bed rock.  That which isn’t absorbed by roots of our consequently colorful trees follows the bedrock down to the Little Red River.  The only places where you can see Meadowcreek flowing these days are where the creek has cut down to bedrock.  So strange to walk down a seemingly dry creekbed and come upon a waterfall emerging from below the limestone boulders to flow over a granite outcropping.  Just above the Blue Hole is a great example.

On my weekly trip to pick up trash left by our urban visitors (mostly Bud Light cans as usual), I pulled off the road twice to let tourists speed by at city driving speed.  Wonder how long before they kick up a rock and bust their oil pan?  Just after one passed, a flock of nine turkeys left their camouflage and moved through the field next to me.  Sure glad the tourist was riding my tail and convinced me to pull over.

Just now, coming back to the dorm, four deer were inspecting our freshly cut wood pile.  We wore out the chain on a dead oak, but we have a new chain and will get back at it tomorrow.

Also time to plant the winter greens and get the greenhouses covered.  Never a shortage of fun projects here.  We’re planning a new greenhouse based on a design used in Northern China. The last people to get this excited about this design were a group of Turkmenistan farmers.

As much as some decry the ecological damage done by Delta agriculture, my Delta friends don’t hold a candle to the Turkmen.  They and their comrades in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have managed to dry up what was the world’s fourth largest inland sea.  It would be like Minnesota farmers managing to dry up Lake Superior.   The Aral Sea is turning into the Dead Sea.  Just as the Lebanese and Syrians cut down their cedars and dried up the Jordan.

Turkmenistan is one vast desert with two main resources: natural gas and a huge river flowing through the country from the Himalayas.

Melting snow and glaciers fill the mighty Amu Darya which flows North from the Pamir Mountains on the border of Tajikistan and China.  A western extension of the Himalayas, these are among the world’s highest mountains.  They are called the “Roof of the World” in the local languages.

Up until the third quarter of the 20th century the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest inland lake. The two rivers that feed it are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, reaching the Aral from the South and the North respectively. The Soviet government decided in the 1950s to divert those rivers so that they could irrigate the desert region surrounding the Sea.  They wanted to raise cotton to clothe the proletariat.

They succeeded.  Today, school children are let out of school in Turkmenistan to pick cotton, much as they were in Arkansas less than 100 years ago.  My Turkmen trainees were learning to grow vegetables instead of cotton, but they had to wash their soil seven times with pure Himalayan glacier water to get out all the salt which evaporation in the desert brings to the surface.

All this salt now flows to the remnants of the Aral Sea, making it saltier than Irael’s Dead Sea or California’s Death Valley and Salton Sea.

Khrushchev and his successors decided they had a better use for the 80% of Aral Sea water that used to come from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Evaporation caused the water level to decrease by the same amount that used to flow into the Sea–a wonderfully resilient system.   No longer, my Russian friends.

Level of salinity rose from approximately 10 g/l to often more than 100 g/l in the remaining Southern Aral.  When traveling through the desert, rivers, unless they are traveling really fast, collect a bunch of salts.  When all the farmers along the way are washing salt out of their soils so they can plant crops, its even worse.

Miles and miles of seabed are now vast salt flats.  Good for racing cars and shooting post-apocalyptic movies, but not much else.  Once prosperous fishing villages and packing plants along the Aral Sea coast used to provide millions of tons of fish for Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk.  Now they are vast ghost towns. Fish can’t survive in new and improved Communist Aral Sea.

I really hope I’m not causing the same thing at Meadowcreek by showing our new residents how to build a hot new greenhouse using practical Chinese peasant technology.  But you never know.  All we can do is try our best and hope that the government upstream of Meadowcreek doesn’t divert all the water to grow cotton.  Not much chance of that, so I guess we’ll go ahead with the training.


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