Water, water everywhere

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Water, water everywhere

Once there was a place called Khara Khoto, but it was ruined in a harsh Gobi Desert sandstorm. It flourished as a base for trading and as a frontier where Buddhist and Islamic culture met, as it was situated near the Silk Road. A Russian who explored the area in 1908 is said to have found scores of statues of Buddha, 500 Buddhist paintings and some 24,000 ancient documents.

According to a legend circulated among residents in a nearby area, a snake covered with green scales used to live in the Khara Khoto castle. Locals were afraid to enter the castle because they believed that the snake was the incarnation of the vindictive spirit of the castle’s lord, who was defeated and killed by the invading Mongols.

According to the legend, Khara Khoto resisted three attacks by the Mongolian troops. Eventually, the Mongols decided to divert the stream that flowed into the castle. It was literally a tactic of forcing the castle’s residents to wither away from dehydration. As a last resort, the lord of the castle killed his wife and children and came out of the castle gate to fight against the Mongols.

The truth of the legend is not verifiable, but one can infer that the fall of the castle had to do with a water shortage. According to a recent survey, the castle flourished even after the Mongolian invasion but it was ruined by rapid desertification caused by climate change in the 15th century.

Khara Khoto is not the only place that disappeared from the map. The Aral Sea, which was once the fourth largest lake in the world with an area equal to three-fourths of South Korea, has now been reduced to one-tenth of its original size. Given its current size, it is even awkward to call it a sea.

Comparing two satellite photos of the sea, one taken 20 years ago and the other taken recently (the photos were published in the Sept. 3 issue of the JoongAng Ilbo), I wondered whether they had really beem taken in the same place. Ports formerly busy have no trace of ships, and residents who lost their livelihoods deserted their hometowns. The cause for the change in sea size is desertification, which is the combined work of global warming, pollution and development.

The lives of six innocent South Koreans were lost due to an unexpected discharge of floodwater from Hwanggang Dam in North Korea. It is not yet known whether the flooding was an intentional offensive against the South, but it has awakened awareness of the hazardous effects of flooding.

But what is even more hazardous than flooding is the drying up of water resources. Some 70 percent of the human body is made up of water. Mankind cannot survive without it.

Events like the disappearance of Khara Khoto and the ongoing shrinking of the Aral Sea should not be repeated.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yeh Young-june [yyjune@joongang.co.kr]

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