The University of Arizona

Irrigation in the Khorezm oasis, past and present: a political ecology perspective

Elizabeth Baker Brite

Abstract


The Khorezm oasis sits at the epicenter of an environmental disaster. Since the late 19th century, the continual expansion of irrigation in this region has altered the natural hydrology of the Amu Darya delta, leading to widespread desertification and the near total disappearance of the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea. The situation is widely acknowledged as an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scale, and yet it is not the first irrigation crisis in Khorezmian history. Numerous events of irrigation collapse are recorded in the archaeological record of this oasis, with many in the scientific community now very interested in this past record for its potential to inform on the modern crisis. Unfortunately, there has also been a tendency to overlook the different historical conditions that led to irrigation in this oasis over the last three millennia. In this article, I take an alternative approach that draws on political ecology's insights about the cultural embeddedness of environmental behavior. I compare two periods of irrigation in Khorezm, one ancient and the other modern, to show how the particular social contexts of each period shaped irrigation schemes in different ways. Significantly different design and implementation features are apparent in the ancient versus modern systems, with vastly different implications for environmental sustainability and human well-being.

Keywords: water, irrigation, Aral Sea, archaeology, collapse, Soviet Union, nomadic pastoralism


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2458/v23i1.20177

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