The end of Soviet Union Gave A New Lease of life to Kazakhstan

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

The end of Soviet Union Gave A New Lease of life to Kazakhstan

January 11, 2021

The collpase of the Soviet Union was one of the most significant historical events in recent modern history.

However, when Kazakhstan left the USSR, things took a turn, and nature started dominating the abandoned lands.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) survived from the year 1922 to 1991. However, due to political failures, dismay arose amongst the members, which led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union. Several people rioted and protested against the governing officials. The 1980s was the peak of revolts. With Communism slowly dying off, the Union was now walking on eggshells. And in the course, Kazakhstan’s destiny took an unusual route.

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Changing World Order

The Chernobyl disaster added momentum to the dissolving of the USSR, and nations started leaving. Kazakhstan was the last nation to leave the Soviet Union after farmers weren’t as successful as the Union had expected. On 16th December 1991, Kazakhstan was declared an independent state, which may seem significant at first, but it indeed wasn’t.

Due to leaving the Union, the Soviet Union’s economic structure was taken away from Kazakhstan, which led to one of Kazakhstan’s most challenging times. With the rise of unemployment, many people were pushed into poverty, and the GDP of Kazakhstan fell by an astonishing 36 per cent by 1995. By 1999, almost 44% per cent of Kazakhstan’s population was living below the poverty line.

Workers trying to clear the radioactive debris from the roof using West German, Japanese, and Russian robots, but the machines could not cope with the extreme radiation levels so authorities decided to use humans. In some areas, workers could not stay any longer than 40 seconds before the radiation they received reached the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life.

Nature Thrived in the post-Soviet Era

Steppes are massive flat regions which grasslands and barely have trees or bushes and can only be found near lakes and rivers. These types of grasslands are found in south-eastern Europe and Northwest Asia. Like the Prairies, however, Steppes occur in a dry climate enough not to support a forest but can tolerate grasses. The Eurasian Steppe Belt runs from Romania in Europe to Mongolia in Asia.

If one were to visit the Steppes in Kazakhstan, the thriving wildlife combined with the fresh air present would give several luxury resorts a run for their money. However, the Kazakh Steppes did not always have such a free life. During the reign of the Soviet Union, these steppes were once civilizations of farmers, where most of the grasslands were destroyed by people.

However, since the farms were now rendered unprofitable by the farmers after Kazakhstan left, they decided to abandon them and seek work elsewhere. However, this bare and infertile land changed over 30 years, with wildlife thriving and many of the grasses reclaiming their position. It’ll be difficult for one to imagine that the heavenly abode of the Eurasian environment, was once subjected to severe encroachment and torture.

Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Croatia Tolezhan Barlybayev laid a time capsule with a message to future generations signed by the ambassadors of Kazakhstan and Russia and heads of the local administration.

Dynamics of Static Green Lands

Satellite images of the locations revealed the dynamics of man and the environment. In humans, more than 2000 settlements and 1300 animal sheds were wholly or partially abandoned after the year 1991. In the case of nature, it was observed that some species increased in number, some became less significant, while some animals completely disappeared from the region.

Researchers even analysed around 7,000 Bobak marmot burrows. Marmots are animals like the ground squirrel and not groundhogs. The analysis revealed that the population has remained consistent at around six million since the 1950s.

Threats to Nature

However, all wasn’t good as researchers observed that most grasslands are falling prey to the wildfires occurring in Kazakhstan. These wildfires pose a threat to wildlife. Currently, Kazakhstan has become a global wildfire hotspot with fires increasing 10 times more in 2015 as compared to 1990. But why are there wildfires in a cold region like Kazakhstan?

Well, even though Kazakhstan may be a cold nation, it has quite an arid climate and in the summers, this dryness gets magnified. Since grasses in the Steppes are growing wildly and less unbothered due to reduction in grazing, this enables the hot climate to set the dry wild grasses on fire and spread them over mass areas due to winds.

Researchers suggest keeping ecological balance. The grasslands need to be frequently grazed by animals. It looks like a re-introduction of livestock to the region would be beneficial. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, sheep present on the Kazakh steppes reduced from 33 million in 1992 to 8.7 million in 1999. The cattle population also saw a significant drop from 9.5 million to 4 million.

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This Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image from June 15, 2005, shows several large fires burning in the steppes to the west of Lake Balkhash. Fire locations that MODIS detected are marked in red.

Extent of Rewilding in Kazakhstan

Despite the wildfires, it doesn’t stop the grasslands from thriving and glowing in Kazakhstan. The greens have been populated by vibrant tulips, staining the region in shades of red, yellow, and orange. The social Lapwings are critically endangered birds that can now exclusively be found breeding the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The Saiga is a type of dee which were massively hunted by locals during the post-Soviet period. This led to such a vast decline in their population that they were almost extinct. In 2015, these ethereal animals were subjected to a lethal bacterial disease, which wiped out thousands of Saiga’s lives.

However, in 2019, their population seems to have been doing better, with their numbers doubling to more than 330,000 and even higher during the pandemic.

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Beautiful Sentinel2 image of the western part of Lake Balkhach in Kazakhstan acquired on 14 April, 2019 but if you zoom on the delta of the Ili river you start seeing wildfires (see images below)
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Wildfires in the Ili river delta in Kazakhstan, as seen by Sentinel2 on 14 April, 2019. Short Wave InfraRed (SWIR) view
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Unfortunately, to what extent the rewilding has occurred is a mystery since not many paid attention to this raw gem. However, researchers reckon that at least half of flora and fauna have returned to the grasslands in thirty years. Kazakhstan’s wildlife is a vulnerable place for its endemic wildlife to thrive.

As industrialisation picks pace in the region, researchers hope that the Steppes remain untouched. After all, the gap between the ecosystem and the people is closing up very soon. Only time will tell how well these animals will survive, but for now, they are all enjoying life in their well-deserved habitat.

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