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Central Asia: New UN Report Warns Aral Sea On The Verge Of Disappearing

  • Nikola Krastev

A new report by the UN Economic Commission for Europe says that the Aral Sea, formerly the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, is on the verge of disappearing if urgent measures are not implemented. The sea's woes go back to the 1950-60s planned Soviet economy, when huge amounts of water were diverted for cotton irrigation. But in the last decade its situation has become desperate -- the Aral Sea receives only a tenth of the water it once did and has shrunk to half its original size. The report urges the five Central Asian states to cooperate to save the body of water.

United Nations, 21 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A new UN report says the Aral Sea, wedged between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has shrunk by half.

The 106-page report warns: "If present trends continue, the Aral Sea will disappear altogether in the not-so-distant future, despite the many piecemeal efforts to save it."

It blames excessive use of its main feeder rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and prolonged drought.

Bo Libert, a regional adviser for the UN Economic Commission for Europe, says the damage is so devastating that no matter what revitalizing measures are taken, the sea will never be what it was.

Libert says that only cooperation among the five former Soviet Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- can save the sea. But he says convincing the five to work together will not be easy because of competing economic interests.

"In order to get electricity from hydropower [Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] need to discharge the water in the wintertime when they really need the most electricity. That has created different interests on how to use water between the downstream countries [Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan], which want to use water in the spring and summer, and the upstream countries [Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] that really want to generate the hydropower in the wintertime," Libert says.

Libert says Turkmenistan represents a separate obstacle altogether in that it usually refuses to cooperate in UN Central Asian initiatives.

Yevgenii Nadezhdin, a UN adviser and a project manager who helped to compile the report, describes his dealings with Turkmen officials as constant promises to participate but never really making good on the promises. Nadezhdin says theoretically it is possible to recreate the Aral Sea but that it would be prohibitively expensive.

"It is possible in principle to re-establish the Aral Sea and there [have been calculations of how much money it would cost to do this], but I think the world community does not have such an amount of money to invest. The rough estimate shows that [some $250 billion to $300 billion will be needed]," Nadezhdin says.

Nadezhdin says last year there was an intense discussion in the Russian media about a project that would reverse the flow of rivers in southern Russia so that they could feed the Aral Sea. But he says this proposal borders on what he calls fantasy.

The report says that: "It is...essential to develop the legal framework for water and energy cooperation, to strengthen national and regional institutions, to improve monitoring and information on water resources, and to protect water and energy resources." It continues: Central Asian countries need to cooperate as the region faces "daunting environmental problems and a deteriorating infrastructure in the water sector."

Four of the five former Soviet nations in the region -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- have approved the UN cooperation strategy contained in the report. Turkmenistan is not participating.