KALMYKIA
A DESERT IN EUROPE
Article by Pietro Romeo, Rocco Volante
Photographs by Pietro Romeo

Kalmykia: a Desert in Europe

“Hop in, I’ll take you,” says Anatoly. We leave the town aboard a Lada Niva, definitely more suitable than our rental car on the dirt road we’ll be travelling along to reach his farm. Outside the window lies the harsh reality of Kalmykia, an independent republic of the Russian Federation not far from the city once known as Stalingrad.

Stretching away all around, expanses of dusty steppe alternate with isolated villages, arid dunes and grazing herds that phlegmatically stray across the road.

“I’m often forced to travel by motorbike for tens of kilometers if I want to find good grazing for my flock. I can’t use the same land every day, it would quickly become infertile,” says Anatoly, as he takes the last stretch of road separating us from the rural house where he lives with his wife Inna.

His words sum up his complicated, unvarying everyday life, constantly moving to a new pasture and driven by a clear awareness of environmental problems.

The problems are common to many inhabitants of the region, who still suffer today from the imprudent agricultural plan implemented in the 1950s by the Soviet government which was centered on the massive exploitation of pastureland.

This rash policy led to the almost total erosion of the topsoil in Kalmykia and bequeathed to this small Republic a certainly unenviable primacy as the driest anthropized region of the whole of geographical Europe.

Already at the start of this millennium, 770,000 hectares of land were barren sand. Today more than 80% of the region has desert or semi-desert features. A reversal of trend, at present, appears increasingly difficult to trigger due to a series of highly controversial factors. First of all: global warming.

Between 2012 and 2020, climate change has caused average temperatures to rise by 1.5 degrees. Periods of extreme drought have become more frequent, causing further changes in the native flora and thereby accentuating the problems of infertility and desertification of a soil already compromised by intensive grazing. Today the local government has imposed a maximum limit on the number of head of livestock per farm, but pastoralism remains a puzzle with no solution. On the one hand it’s a contributing factor to the progressive geological degeneration, on the other it’s the country’s main economic activity.

During the Soviet years Anatoly and Inna worked for many years near Tsagan Aman, on the west bank of the Volga river. The economic crisis following the dissolution of the USSR led them to set up their own business and move closer to the capital Elista, a choice that allowed their children to attend the local university.

Today the couple export meat to the rest of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan and don’t regret the decision they made, despite the many difficulties they face.

Apart from desertification, in Kalmykia there is another issue they have to deal with: water supply. Under the surface of the steppe there are several aquifers, but their high salinity means the water is only fit for animals to drink. Anatoly and Inna, like almost all the inhabitants, are unable to grow vegetables.

“We get water once a week from a tanker, but we only use it for domestic consumption. Agriculture doesn’t exist here. The fruit and vegetables you see at the market all come from outside.”

The shortage of reserves of drinking water, aggravated by the rise in average temperatures, has become increasingly worrying over the last decade and now involves a large part of the resources of the Arid Soil Research Institute. This state study center, founded to collect useful data and combat desertification, has 30 staff members and continuously monitors various environmental parameters.

The building that houses it has all the appearance of a former suburban schoolhouse. Here we meet the director Bogun Andrey Petrovich. He’s a big pale man with a blunt manner, one of those who cut the pleasantries to the minimum.

“Global warming is putting us in a very dangerous position. The increase in average temperatures has led to winter thaws and hotter summers than normal, with disastrous effects on our ecosystem,” he says, showing us a map of the areas of the republic most at risk.

According to the Institute’s estimates, in the last eight years the average rainfall in Kalmykia has declined further, recording minimums of between 150 and 200 mm, levels closer to a desert climate than the steppe.

“The moisture content of the soil is critical and this has had a significant impact on both native plant species and the already complicated production of forage,” observes Petrovich. “An area that thrives on raising livestock can’t afford this. Under these conditions, it’s almost impossible to keep going. For ordinary people it’s simply much easier to leave here,” he comments bitterly.

The ecological difficulties of this endangered region also affect population levels. With a lack of natural resources in the countryside, the inhabitants increasingly move away from rural villages to other cities in Russia. The data speak for themselves. In the two-year period 2018-2019 alone, the migration rate recorded a negative balance of over 4,700 people and the population reached an all-time low of 271,135 inhabitants.

 

The town of Adyk, south-east of the capital Elista, is perhaps the only one that does not reflect the country’s downward demographic trend. Unlike other small remote towns in the steppe, here the balance of births is positive and the organization of the community impeccable.

“We’re one big family. Each of us makes our skills available for the common good. It’s the only way to keep going,” Chongor, a  local, tells us. “The land doesn’t offer many resources. We often experience hard times, but our people are united and this is basically why we stay. We make do with what there is and we’re happy to share with others.”

Despite an extraordinary spirit of adaptation, even here life proves itself very hard and survival is made possible only by an autarchic approach. The same that led the citizens to self-finance the construction of a public water treatment plant to improve the troubled state of the water supply. A blessing, if you consider that in certain areas of the region, water consumption per head is just 7 liters a day.

But the aridity of the region, the shortage of reserves of drinking water and the signs of climate change again appear implacable as we leave Adyk behind and travel further south.


Near the town of Komsomolsky, a sandy area of 800 hectares dominates the whole landscape. Only very rare hints of vegetation emerge from the ground. The landscape faithfully reflects the average Westerner’s classic idea of a desert.

We are accompanied by Konstantin Bembeev, deputy director of the Centre for Revitalising the Steppe, a scientific institute that fights desertification of the chernozem, the region’s typical soil. It concentrates mainly on botanical operations aimed at protecting the land, but sometimes its representatives also take action to suggest new environmental protection regulations. “We were the ones who suggested that the government should introduce a limit of 300 head of livestock per farm,” he tells us proudly.

In the Komsomolsky region the spread of the sand was curbed by planting a belt of chusgun, a shrub with limited water requirements whose roots favour the growth of plant species useful for grazing. With moving enthusiasm, Bembeev shows us the beneficial effects of the work done to date. Further on, in the midst of the sinuous dune landscape, he points to an abandoned farm.


“Several farms in the area have closed down due to desertification. Our goal is to wrest back the land that surrounds them from the sands to allow productive activities to start again, obviously with the help of the institutions.”

 

In Kalmykia the state often provides infrastructure and livestock to repopulate critical areas, asking for 50% of the revenues in return. A form of agreement borrowed from the past and which, not surprisingly, is still called colloquially a sovkhoz, as in the Soviet years.

But the government’s tax concessions, the efforts of state bodies and the commitment of individual citizens alone are failing to be decisive and revive the fortunes of this remote European desert.