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Central Asia: Another Conference Opens On The Shrinking Aral Sea

By Lowell Bezanis

Tashkent, 30 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A conference on the Aral Sea sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) opened in the Uzbek capital Tashkent today.

The three-day gathering aims to bring attention to the destruction of the world's largest inland sea and fourth largest inland body of water, a regional if not global problem of vast proportions.

The shrinking of Aral Sea has left huge swathes of salted earth in its wake. Experts say the wind has carried the salt as far as Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. The lack of potable water and all sorts of health and hygienic problems stemming from that represent a transnational disaster most affecting Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

The World Bank's regional representative told the conference that the bank had spent some $30 million since 1994 to size up the Aral Sea problem. But despite a large number of missions sent to scrutinize the situation on the ground and dozens of consultant reports and a round-robin of international and regional conferences on the Aral Sea, there have been few tangible results to date. He also said little has been done to help the people most affected by the disaster.

Turkmenistan, which borders the Aral Sea, failed to send its representatives to the conference although it is profoundly affected by the ecological crisis and. But it is unlikely that its government will ignore the proceedings or any conventions which could come out of it.

Rather, Turkmenistan's absence might have been prompted by Tashkent's efforts to use the conference to internationalize the Aral Sea. Turkmenistan's likely aim is to demonstrate its independence and highlight the view that a solution to a regional problem can not be pursued without it.

In the past, Turkmenistan pursued this approach on the Aral Sea issue. It failed to send representatives to a previous conference at Nukus last year, but signed a declaration committing itself to cooperating in resolving the Aral problem.