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Central Asia: Can The Aral Sea Be Saved?

  • Charles Carlson

The shrinking of the Aral Sea -- once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water -- has devastated much of southwestern Kazakhstan and northwestern Uzbekistan, and wreaked havoc on the lives of tens of thousands of people. But despite the creation of numerous international programs and the holding of dozens of conferences, no single coordinated program of measures has yet been agreed on to improve the situation.

Prague, 16 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 9-12 June, the board of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), an organization that unites the five Central Asian states, met to draw up a program of concrete measures to improve the ecological and socio-economic situation in the Aral Sea basin.

The Dushanbe meeting was one of many held in recent years. Participants invariably agree the situation is alarming and that urgent action is needed to save the sea and improve the living conditions of the tens of thousands of people affected by the changing climatic conditions in the region. But they do not always agree on the optimum approach to resolving the problems resulting from the shrinkage of the sea, or which particular projects should take priority.

IFAS is not the only body that focuses on the Aral Sea problem. INTAS is an independent international organization formed by the European Community and European Union member states to promote scientific cooperation with CIS states. INTAS has approved an Aral Sea Basin Program that consists of 19 projects related to agriculture, climate, health care, and water.

Iain Muse, an executive officer at the nonprofit organization EMonument , coordinates the INTAS project dealing with the role of groundwater in the Aral Sea region. He is optimistic about the results of a conference that INTAS held on 4 April in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

"It was quite exciting. Out of the 19 projects, 16 or 17 project coordinators were present," Muse says. "And we had a chance of listening for about an hour or so to what each coordinator had to say, and to get their views and feedback on how their projects were going, and if there were comments, we could ask questions later. And in that period, we were able to brainstorm the situation with the Aral Sea. We were able to ascertain and review the situation and to find out that the problem that we have is to incorporate a system of gathering the present information, as well as from past projects, collate this data so that we could put it together, and move forward."

Until the 1970s, the Aral Sea -- lying in southwest Kazakhstan and northwest Uzbekistan -- was the world's fourth-largest inland body of water. However, the sea is drying up due to intensive use of water from its main feeder rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

The Soviet leadership decided to cultivate cotton in the region, and since the early 1960s, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya have been used for large-scale irrigation, causing a significant drop in the flow of fresh water into the sea. As a result, by 1995, the sea had lost three-quarters of its surface area and the water level had dropped by 19 meters. Over the past 30 years, its radius shrank to 150 kilometers and an area of some 30,000 square kilometers around it has been turned into a salt desert.

The environmental situation is deteriorating rapidly as a result. The quality of the remaining water has deteriorated. Increased salinity has killed fish, resulting in the collapse of a fishing industry that once employed 40,000 workers and supplied one-sixth of the Soviet catch.

The health of those living along the shores of the sea also has declined. The local population suffers from respiratory and digestive ailments, and hepatitis and typhus are on the rise. Up to 80 percent of women of child-bearing age suffer from anemia.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Aktkul Samaqova, Kazakhstan's minister of ecology and environment protection, spoke about what she considers to be the most acute problem.

"All the [Aral] problems are not being solved due to the number of old unsolved problems. There are too many problems to be solved step by step. And to solve those problems, we need time on the one hand and larger investments on the other hand. The most acute problem to be solved first is the problem of drinking water. Ordinary citizens in the [Aral] region get sick mainly because of the local water quality. Only 25 percent of the population in the Aral area have a safe water supply. Others do not have [safe drinking water] at all."

Regional weather has been affected, as well, becoming harsher as the sea's moderating climatic influence has diminished.

"Usually cold wind comes to the [Aral] area from the north every fall," says Mels Eleusizov, chairman of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) Party. "When the Aral Sea was full, its warm waters preserved the temperature balance in the area and the weather in autumn was not so severe. Now, when the water is almost gone, there are no obstacles to the cold weather, which kills all the vegetation in the region every spring and autumn. One more problem is that the salt produced by the evaporation of the sea's waters is carried by the wind and deposited on the summits of the Ala Tau mountains, causing the glaciers to melt."

Some even believe the climatic changes triggered by the sea's disappearance could have a global impact. At a Central Asian Cooperation Summit in Dushanbe in October 2002, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said salt from the Aral Sea is contributing to the accelerated melting of glaciers not only in the Pamirs but also in the Swiss and Austrian Alps.

Yusuf Shodimetov, chairman of the ECOSAN international environmental foundation in Tashkent, says, "I am convinced that even in Germany and other European countries, people are not well aware of the problems of the Aral Sea. They don't even know well that this problem is very deep and is global. People don't know the consequences of the Aral Sea and that this may directly influence Europe, i.e., with the help of the El Nino [weather phenomenon], which rotates around the globe, dust, smoke, salt substances mixed with different pesticides that reach the European [continent]."

Regional governments have already concluded it is impossible to restore the Aral Sea to the size it was in 1960, according to a study posted on the website of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To do so, those governments estimate it would be necessary to discharge at least 73 cubic kilometers of water into the sea annually over a period of 20 years. Instead, they are hoping simply to restore the sea to its 1990 level of 38 meters, which, according to the FAO study, will require a total inflow of approximately 35 cubic kilometers per year.

Some specialists suggest that even a more modest inflow would be sufficient. At a meeting in Dushanbe in August 2002, Gulakhmad Kholov, an expert on the Aral Sea, said it would take between 3 and 5 cubic kilometers of water to be pumped into the Aral Sea yearly to salvage the sea. "To salvage the Aral, one should make rational use of the water of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which flow into the sea, and simultaneously stop increasing the irrigated land area," he said.

But increasing the flow of water into the sea depends on an agreement between the regional governments to use water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya far more sparingly and effectively. And reaching such an agreement will not be easy.

"Yes, there are some delicate points there," Muse of EMonument told RFE/RL. "That is about water, and in a region where water is valuable, of course, it is a very delicate situation to discuss. It is something that has to be reviewed in great detail at the ministerial level. We found at the conference in Bukhara that was the main point of interest because it is a political issue. Water is extremely valuable there, and the main situation we were able to come up with, the main development that we found, was that because it is such a political issue, that they are having to go into great detail with the parties involved and to try to establish who gets what right and who has the right and how much they are allotted to have."

A more grandiose proposal involves rerouting some Siberian rivers to channel their waters into the Aral Sea. That scheme was first proposed in the late 19th century and brought up again in the 1930s. In the 1980s, work was begun on building canals that would channel the water, but that work was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When asked at the Dushanbe meeting last October whether it would be possible to use the Siberian rivers to save the Aral Sea, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said doing so depends on Russia, but that he is hopeful it may prove possible to finally implement the river diversion project.