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June 12, 2013

Tajikistan: Proof that technology can benefit the environment?

Energy for the Pamir Mountains
courtesy: United Nations University

Tajikistan is a landlocked, arid, mountainous (almost 50% of the country is above 10,000 feet) country bordering, most notably, Afghanistan and China.  It is geographically smaller than Utah, but with a larger population of nearly 8 million and is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia with aluminum and cotton being the major economic products.  More than 1 million of the 8 million Tajiks work abroad (mainly in Russia) to find enough income to survive.  Tajikistan was under Russian rule from the 1860s until 1991 when it gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union whereupon it descended into a long civil war which ended in 1997.  The main spoken language is Tajik which is a derivative of Persian.

The focus of interest in this blog is about the above video and the Pamir Mountains where an interesting environmental issue caught my attention and enlightened me to the positive role technology can play in the health and survival of people as well as the environment.  

During winter, up in the Pamir Mountains, temperatures can fall below -40 degrees Celsius (just a little cold for the faint hearted!).  This presents something of an energy crisis for the people.  Before the Russian conquest of the area, fire was the main source of energy for light, staying warm, and for cooking amongst other things.  This use of fire seems not to have been as large of an issue back then as the population was smaller and people have existed, continuously, in Tajikistan since at least 4000 B.C.E. (though the fact that people have lived there for such a long period really says nothing about their quality of life).  The fact is though that fire is an inefficient technology when used directly as an energy source as compared with electricity.  Especially, when we consider that much of Tajikistan is at such high altitudes with lower oxygen content.  Fire, along with being inefficient when used directly as an energy source, is also destructive for the environment because local natural resources must be consumed and pollution inevitably results.  In Utah, burning of wood and coal by even a small percentage of households can tremendously add to the smog in the valley that we experience during inversions.  Just imagine what the air and land would look like if everyone in Utah replaced their electrical energy use with burning locally harvested coal and wood to keep warm and to cook!  For one, we wouldn't have the many technologies that require electricity (no computers, cell phones, appliances, etc.) and our lives would suddenly become much more laborious and less connected.  Secondly, the environment would be stripped bare and extremely polluted and thirdly Utah's population would probably fall drastically until it reached a level that the environment could sustain. 

When the Russians took over Tajikistan, especially when Russia was the communist Soviet Union, they invested heavily in the infrastructure of Tajikistan, bringing technologies and hydroelectric power.  Even going so far, in some instances, as to outlaw the use of fire as an energy source.  They also invested in the study of the environment of the Pamir Mountain ecosystem to see what could be done to prevent desertification by wind erosion and overgrazing by the livestock that the Tajik people rely so much upon to survive.

Under the Russians quality of life improved for the Tajiks, modernization was under way (many Tajiks seem to look back with nostalgia for the communist era), and the environment was being effectively conserved, but with the break up of the Soviet Union and a civil war Tajikistan fell into a wounded state of disrepair.  During the civil war the population in the Pamir Mountain region doubled and without a government investing in infrastructure and technology people sought to survive in whatever way they could.  They turned to their local environment and to fire once more.

Unfortunately, the environment couldn't withstand the onslaught and severe desertification ensued over many square miles of land.  This ends up being a double edged sword for the Tajiks because they have created an environment so bare of plant life that gathering enough firewood to stay warm and to cook is an arduous task and the bare environment doesn't sustain healthy herds of livestock.

The current Tajik government has shown signs of willingness to invest in modernizing, but it struggles with corruption, lack of funds and the prospects of an uncertain, shaky future though countries like Russia, China and the USA as well as the UN have invested in the recovery of Tajikistan as a sovereign nation.

I think what I learned from this video and a little extracurricular research is that technology has the obvious benefit of improving the quality of our lives, but it also has a role in sustaining the environment especially since the human population has grown so radically in the past couple of centuries.  Without technologies like electricity the world might not be able to sustain the human population at its current level.  

A certain irony exists in technologies like electricity because even though the production of electricity is a polluting process in many cases, it is still far more efficient and productive than the use of primitive technologies like fire as a direct energy source.  And as the example of the Pamir Mountains elucidates, technology can actually help the environment recover.  If the Tajik people used electricity for heating and cooking it would decrease the demand for firewood which has so negatively impacted the environment there, but how long would it take for the environment of the Pamir Mountains to recover?  Once an ecosystem has been transformed into a desert can it recover without humans replanting the shrubs and plants that once were there?  With more ecological awareness and reclamation efforts could it return to the productive grazing land it once was?

Sources Cited:

-Seth Commichaux