Heavy Lifting - thoughts and web finds by an economist
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Friday, April 01, 2005
This is a picture of the Great Fergana Canal being built in Uzbekistan in 1939. A mere 160,000 folks dug the 270 km canal in about 45 days. (more here) This picture is a good example of labor intensive vs. capital intensive technologies. In the United States we would dig a canal with steam shovels and bulldozers, but in the U.S. labor is relatively expensive and capital is relatively cheap. In the former Soviet Union, and in today's China, the exact opposite was true: labor was very cheap and capital was very expensive. Hence, lots of people pick up their shovels and dig for 45 days and wallah, you have a canal.
The canal was not dug to move freight or to make transportation easier. The canal was dug to irrigate the cotton fields of the Uzbek desert. The canal diverted the waters of the two major rivers that contributed to the Aral sea. As the first secratary of the Uzbek communist party said at the time:
"We cannot be content with the fact that the Amu Darya, abounding in water, deposits it without benefit into the Aral Sea while our Samarkand and Bukhara oblast lands are insufficiently irrigated. Our task is to bridle the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, firmly grasp them in our hands, and make their water serve the interests of socialism, the growth of the material level of the population, and the development of the country."
The result of diverting the rivers? The Aral sea no longer exists, and as reported here,
The catastrophic effects of the Aral Sea's desiccation became apparent under Gorbachev. Dust storms carried soil from the dried out seabed that contained sulfates, phosphates, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other toxic substances found in fertilizers and pesticides across a wide swathe of territory. Soaring rates of cancer, liver ailments, and other diseases were recorded in Uzbekistan's Karakalpak Autonomous Republic. The rate of infant mortality in Karakalpak -- 60/1000 live births in the late 1980s -- was the highest in the Soviet Union.
The upshot is that governments rarely consider all the aspects of their decisions and the mistakes of the government are usually borne by the individual citizen who has no recourse, nowhere to turn for redress. Environmentalists in the developed Western countries are all too quick to forget how disastrous the Soviet Union and other Communist/Socialist countries have been when it comes to environmental protection and degradation.
Moreover, the Uzbeks forced to dig the Fergana Canal, and the other Soviet citizens forced to dig the White Sea Canal and hundreds of other canals (because most of Russia is barely above sea level as it is), did so involuntarily. They were told to dig or die. Some were told to dig and died anyway. To me, that is one of the most frustrating things about the fellow travelers of the statist approach - they never seem to remember that the only way the state gets its way is to destroy the individual, his freedom of will, choice, and association.
More info on the canals of Central Asia
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