The High Plains of the Eastern Pamirs
Geographical and Biophysical Characteristics
The Eastern Pamirs are characterized by a rather smooth topography of arid high plateaus at altitudes between 3,500-5,500m asl. The high plains covering an area of 38,000km2 are bordered by various mountain ranges: the Trans-Alai to the north, the Sarykol range to the east, the Wakhan corridor to the south and the Western Pamirs to the west. High altitudes and extreme climatic conditions create specific ecological niches which only few species and land use systems are adapted to. Precipitation averages 70mm annually (see precipitation map) and falls preferably in small portions in form of snow facing a potential annual evaporation of 1,000mm. The predominant vegetation consists of dwarf-shrubs such as Teresken and Artemisia species growing on high mountain desert soils. Relatively rich alpine meadow vegetation and old willow trees along meandering rivers create important habitat and land resources in this moon-like landscape (see land cover map). High altitudes, low temperatures and minimal precipitation severely limit plant growth and the potential for agricultural production. The vegetation period constitutes between 75-125 days and is considerably curtailed by limited water availability and temperatures below freezing point even in summer. Mean annual temperatures of -1° C to -4.5° C, summer maximum of +26° C and winter minimum of -58° C as well as high daily amplitudes define the typical temperature regime. Moreover, only 60 non-freezing days are annually observed. Main natural resources in the Eastern Pamirs are pasture land, estimated at 7,730km2, alpine meadows for forage production, nutritious shrubby vegetation used as fodder and energy source, and wildlife such as Marco Polo sheep and Siberian ibex hunted for meat and trophy.
Local Societies and Livelihoods
The high plains of the Eastern Pamirs coincide with the administrative boundaries of Murgab district in GBAO. It is the largest district composed of five jamoats and home to 23 settlements scattered on the vast plains. With 14,144 inhabitants of traditionally semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people of Sunni Muslim confession and a population density of 0.37 person per km2, these high plateaus are one of the thinnest populated regions of the world. However, the scarce natural resource base only allows extensive forms of land use. Semi-nomadic pastoralism for subsistence purposes, hay harvesting and cultivation of crops and legumes in small irrigated kitchen gardens define the predominant land use system. The sale of livestock and dairy products in the local markets constitute around 50% of the household income. Still, herds as main asset are too small to live on: Average average livestock number per family with four to five members amounts to four cattle and 10 sheep and goats (see livestock map). Since independence, livestock numbers have decreased by 25% compared to Soviet stocks. Subsistence crop cultivation on harsh conditions covers only minor proportion of the family's food needs. Hence, around 40-50% of the household budget are is spent alone on the purchase of flour. As in other part of Gorno Badakhshan vulnerable families still heavily rely on humanitarian assistance.
Murgab center with its 6,700 inhabitants is the largest settlement. It was established as a military outpost under tsarist rule in 1891 and is today the economic center of the Eastern Pamirs. Murgab district is economically oriented towards Kyrgyzstan, and more precisely to the city of Osh. Long distances to central markets, high transport costs, bribes at border controls and taxes considerably increase prices for imported goods, but also hinder the export of local products at reasonable outlays. On the local bazaar livestock products and biomass fuels , such as teresken shrubs and dung , are sold. Market prices are double as high compared to the next bigger bazaars several hundred kilometers away : in Khorog (311km) or Osh (420km).
Energy, Infrastructure and Public Service
High altitudes and low temperatures define the energy demand in this high mountain desert. Subsidized external supply of energy resources ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, people are thus heavily dependent on the locally available fuels, such as teresken shrubs and dung. Imported fossil fuels are hardly affordable due to the people's low purchasing power and disadvantageous transport conditions. Even inefficient energy resources, such as the teresken plants growing on the scarce desert plains, are commercially harvested and sold on the market for 5 Somoni (1.65 USD) per bundle (15kg). A mini hydropower plant on the Murgab River supplies the district center with electricity, whereas other settlements completely lack power supply. The Pamir Highway (M41), crossing the Eastern Pamirs, is an important trading and communication route from Osh via Murgab and Khorog to Dushanbe. Moreover, the newly opened road crossing the Chinese border over the Kulma-Pass connects the Pamir Highway to the Karakorum Highway running from Kashgar (China) to Islamabad in Pakistan, offering access to new markets. Major infrastructure such as phone, hospital, post office or boarding school is concentrated in Murgab center and is completely absent in remote areas.