Economics of the Environment

Published 03 Aug 2016

There was no question of ownership of oil, water, and other resources freely available in the environment before governments and/or private companies claimed ownership of these resources with the pronouncement that they would process and distribute these resources fairly.

Poverty is a result of the unfair distribution of resources. Moreover, environmental degradation ensues when governments or corporations are too greedy for immediate profits to consider sustainable development. Surely environmental degradation accompanies the loss of life. Because governments and corporations have wreaked havoc around the world through the unreasonable use of natural resources, degradation of the environment is a constantly discussed issue based on the premise that all economies would slow down if the environment is not sustained.

Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (“Adaptation to Climate Change in the Context of Sustainable Development”). United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development has identified a variety of issues that must be studied, analyzed, and dealt with around the world in order for humanity to sustain itself, in the name of sustainable development. Agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, demographics, energy, education and awareness, forests, freshwater, health, land management, poverty, technology, and sustainable tourism are only a few of the topics under study (“Adaptation to Climate Change in the Context of Sustainable Development”). As an example of the issues to be dealt with, the United Nations Economic and Social Council has reported the following:

The rate of agricultural production growth at the global level has been about 23 percent between 1970 and 1990 and thus has exceeded population growth so that per capita supplies of food have increased. However, wide regional disparities remain: the situation improved greatly in East Asia but worsened in sub-Saharan Africa. There still remain large numbers of undernourished people in developing countries; the figure is estimated at about 780 million, or 20 percent of their population. The relentless exploitation of the natural resource base to achieve an increased level of agricultural production has resulted in increased natural resource scarcity and environmental degradation.

The following case of the Aral Sea sheds greater light on the fact of natural resources being exploited when governments or corporations refuse to consider the trade-off that the concept of sustainable development is built upon. Situated southwest of Kazakhstan, northwest of Uzbekistan, and east of the Caspian Sea in a region of interior drainage, the Aral Sea is presently a salt lake. Until the 1970s, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake, some 67,200 square miles in area, 420 km long and 280 km wide. The lake was fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, and was quite shallow, reaching a maximum depth of 58 m.

When the dictator Josef Stalin rose to power in 1941, and right up to his death in 1953, he desired to make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cotton, which is used for gunpowder and clothing to boot. Hence, the successors of Stalin during the 1960s and 1970s allowed an unlimited amount of irrigation water to be tapped from both the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast – to quench the thirst of the cotton fields. The two rivers utilized thus were the only sources of water for the Aral Sea.

According to environmentalists, cotton grown in a desert is sure to result in immense wastage of water. On the other hand, smaller quantities of water may be used to produce abundant food. Moreover, it has been claimed that the Uzbeks use a rather wasteful procedure to irrigate their cotton from the Amu Darya. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of its republics, the government of Uzbekistan has continued its old ruinous policy, as cotton happens to be the principle hard-currency earner for the landlocked republic in west central Asia, formerly an Asian soviet. Hence, the world’s fourth largest lake that once supplied approximately fifty thousand tons of fish every year or one hundred pounds of fish per acre has lost a staggering ninety percent of its volume. And, this has happened in the past half century alone. Most of the fish in the Aral Sea have died because the water has turned too salty to be inhabitable.

The Soviet policy of using unlimited water from the rivers that fed the Aral Sea has been referred to as a ‘bad’ one because the successors of Stalin, and now Uzbekistan’s government, failed to take into consideration the science behind dried former sea beds. As though the death of fish is not a big deal, a dried former seabed also spawns dust storms spreading salt, pesticides, and fertilizers. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Aral Sea, as the area’s already fragile semi-desert was ultimately damaged, turning its people into some of the unhealthiest on the planet. Here, anemia figures top ninety percent.

Large-scale irrigation that dried up the Aral Sea split the lake into two: the northern Small Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, normally fed by the Syr Darya; and the southern Big Aral in Uzbekistan, sometimes fed by the Amu Darya during rains. The Aral Sea of today is about a third of its former size in terms of area and less than an eighth in terms of volume. The deteriorated quality of its water – that once supported local fishing – has additionally affected regional weather, which has turned harsher because the moderating climatic influence of the Sea has been reduced. The United Nations estimated that the Aral Sea would actually disappear by 2020 if nothing is done to reverse its gradual decline. Fortunately, in the year 2003, construction was begun on a bike to enclose the smaller northern section of the Small Aral Sea at least. Finally, the world had come to a conclusion that one of the biggest man-made ecological disasters must be challenged. The World Bank agreed to fund the rehabilitation project with U.S. $85 million.

According to a report published in April 2006 in The Washington Times, the first phase of the project to rehabilitate the northern part of the desiccated Aral Sea has been completed faster than expected. More than 300 square miles of the dried former seabed is now covered by water. The entire project aims to improve irrigation and other waterworks along the Syr Darya besides building an eight-mile bike to raise the level of that particular part of the Aral Sea by 10 feet. The project funded by the World Bank further aims to reduce the salinity of the Sea.

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