Prague, 30 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's been called one of the worst environmental disasters in the world. The Aral Sea is dying as ever more demands are made on Central Asia's two great rivers -- the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya.
And as the Aral Sea dies, it is taking the health of millions of people with it, all because of plans that looked at short-term benefits, not long-term consequences.
Turkmenistan's plans to build a lake in the desert and a river through the Turkmen capital bring to the minds of many the disaster of the Aral Sea.
"The salt left from the drying process travels [in the wind] in all directions. These small particles of salt destroy the land and ruin the health of the people."
One of those urging caution is Uzbek ecologist Sadyq Muminov. He told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he foresees the potential for an extreme waste of water. "We have to think very carefully about bringing water to the desert," he said. "A large amount of water will be lost into the sand. That is why [the lake project] will require a large quantity of water."
Turkmenistan's use of water from the Amu Darya is one of the major causes of the dessication of the Aral Sea. Nearly 90 percent of the country's water comes from the river via the Karakum Canal. The canal was completed in the early 1960s. At that time, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. It is now the 10th largest.
The salt content in the Aral Sea is now, by some accounts, three times higher than in normal seawater. All of the Aral Sea's fish have died. The Amu Darya no longer reaches the Aral Sea. All of this occurred after the Karakum Canal was put into operation.
Uzbekistan's northwestern Karakalpak region and Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province, already two of the poorest regions in Central Asia, have been especially hard hit. But areas in Kazakhstan are also affected by alkaline soil from the Aral region that blows hundreds of kilometers in the wind.
Mels Eleusizov is the director of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) organization. He described the problems already caused by desiccation of the Aral Sea: "The salt left from the drying process travels [in the wind] in all directions. These small particles of salt destroy the land and ruin the health of the people."
This scattering of alkaline soil has led to increased reports of tuberculosis and respiratory ailments in the region. A recent study by the National Geographic Society found people in the Aral Sea region exhibited DNA damage, which may explain the high levels of cancer there.
With this as background, Eleusizov calls Turkmenistan's man-made bodies of water "risky ventures." "There is a Russian saying about cutting off the legs of the chair one is sitting on," he said. "They are causing great damage to the ecology of Central Asia because the Aral Sea is already in trouble. By taking more water from the Amu Darya, they will only make our problem worse. I consider this a risky venture, an irresponsible act on the part of the Turkmen president."
Only Turkmen officials know the exact plans for these new bodies of water, and they aren't saying much. How will runoff water from cultivated fields make its way to the lake? How will it be treated to remove fertilizers and pesticides? How much water will evaporate in the heat of the desert? How is it possible to verify that Turkmenistan does not take extra water from the Amu Darya?
Analysts point out that, in the end, Turkmenistan will not enjoy any extra water. The water it has will simply be moved around. For Turkmen planners, that may be enough if it means opening up new farming land in the desert and having an insurance supply of water in case of drought.
Opponents of the plan fear the man-made lake and river will only exacerbate the Aral Sea disaster. Saidazim Mirzaev of Uzbekistan's Committee to Protect Nature told RFE/RL that the river project could be costly, and asks the question on many minds. "It is impossible to do because water will soak into the sand," he said. "They need to put concrete on the bottom to contain the water, many square meters of concrete, and polyurethane to keep leakage down. It will require huge amounts of money, and at the end of the day, will it be worth it from an economical point of view?"
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)For more on Turkmen plans to build a river through Ashgabat, see:
Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Has Grand Plans To Create Man-Made Lake, River (Part 1)
Analysis: A River Runs Through It