Getting Sci-Fi in the Altai

by Asher Kohn on 3/4/2010

First off, apologies for being absent these past couple of weeks. Some remarkably serious stuff has gone on in my life outside of my internet persona, and I haven’t had the chance to even think about these sorts of topics recently. I only just got caught up with my news yesterday. So I haven’t forgotten about Central Asia, I merely had to leave it for a bit. OK, on to other things.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I love BLDGBlog:

Let me repeat that: to call these artificial glaciers is a poetic over-statement, as they are much more realistically described as artificially maintained deposits of snow—what I have elsewhere called non-electrical ice reserves. But the thermally self-sustaining nature of these deposits nonetheless makes them susceptible to glaciological analysis.

Geoff is discussing the art of creating glaciers. It’s a practice, by the way, that started in the Pakistani Himalayas and is much more lo-fi and practical than it seems at first. A Norwegian student, Ingvar Tveiten, just wrote a paper on the practice. And very real Climate Change aside, they ain’t going anywhere. The whole practice is actually fairly simple: workers bring buckets of ice, rocks, and other detritus to a mountain environment to form the groundspring of a glacier. Once it gets going, which apparently takes about four years, a self-sustaining but small glacier is begun. It can be used more for irrigation and micro hydro power than apocalyptic geomorphing, but still, it is pretty darned neat.

There’s lots of different tacks for this. I’d love to go into the history of glacier-making in the Himalayas, or look at the environmental consequences of this sort of irrigation vs. more standard irrigation stuff. But I’m most interested in how creating glaciers can be used for an insurgency. Call it John Robb-ian glaciology.

The ranges of Central Asia (Himalayas, Pamirs, Tian Shan, Altai, etc.) hold an ice cover of ~114,800 km2. This brief has lots of neat stats and pictures for you to chew on what that means. Basically, as much as we love our camels-and-stepps iconography, Central Asia has the greatest convergence of ice and population in the world. And because the scale of ice (and runoff) has decreased since the Little Ice Age, there is plenty of room for man-made glaciers. Moreover, glacier-making is cheap, with BLDGBlog citing the price of $50,000 –and most of that is for manpower.

So why make your own glacier? If I were in the region, I wouldn’t be counting on my national government to be looking out for my own interests. Once outside the power structure, its awfully tough to get into it. And at the same time, Roghun and the Turkmen desert-lake show more of a taste for grandiose geomorphing from the center. Here is a way to do small-scale change from the periphery, and in doing so create a new brand (and no, I don’t mean the unfortunately-named hipsters at IMU Brand). Environmentalist-revolutionaries capture the imagination.

And there’s more than just bringing irrigation and thus more-than-subsistence agriculture in things other than opium (or, I suppose, even MORE opium). There’s also the aforementioned micro hydro power (which could be actually very effective) as well as opportunities for guerilla-pastoralism. Where water means money and power, creating new sources of water is pretty imposing. A four-year lag period ain’t nothing.

More nefariously, a lot of the more basic (and I would argue locally effective) cadastral property planning looks at rivers and mountains as boundaries, not GPS co-ordinates. Creating rivers can create property. If I can alter the course of a river or create a new glacier that’ll alter mountains, I can give myself land without fighting for it. As preposterous and Jules Verne as this sounds, it actually has happened in the past and is still happening today. In a country without NOAA maps or anything along those lines, this has the potential to create a land power-base to go with an economic power base. Joshua alluded to property rights recently, and there’s certainly a whole lot to unpack there. But if you can alter the land, you can not only get around the central government, but you can also get around the NGO industry (as much as I love and respect these guys) and International Community. It’s pretty ingenious, if a bit sci-fi. If you want to fight law, you can do it by bending the laws context. There are some pretty heady implications here.

So there’s a lot to chew on this idea and a lot more to work with besides. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more of these sorts of posts in the future if y’all enjoy them (or enjoy mocking them…it got Tom Ricks an audience and some awards), but I will tell you this: it’s good to be back online and writing.


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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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