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Asia: Irrigation, Pollution Threaten Lakes

Kazakhstan is one of several Central Asian and Asian countries facing threats to major lakes Increasing water drainage and pollution are putting many lakes around the world in serious danger. It is estimated that more than one-half of the world's five million lakes are at risk, threatening the economic and health benefits they bring local communities. Asia is no exception.

Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The amount of water taken from rivers and lakes for irrigation, household, and industrial use has doubled in the last 40 years.

Janet Larsen, a research associate at the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, says this is causing lakes around the world to vanish.

"Almost every single lake has some sort of problem. A number of these lakes are shrinking in size and some are even disappearing. Looking at China, thousands of lakes have disappeared throughout the country as rivers have been diverted and water taken out for water irrigation projects. We can't afford to let lakes disappear because they provide us with so many valuable services," Larsen says.
In Kazakhstan, the second-largest lake in Central Asia, Lake Balkhash, is in danger of drying up.

In China, Larsen notes that the disappearance of lakes has deprived the Yangtsi River Basin of much-needed water-storage capacity and flood protection. This led to the devastating 1998 flooding, which killed some 3,600 people and caused more than 30 billion dollars in damages. Following the floods, the Chinese government pledged it would take action to restore the lakes.

In Central Asia, irrigation of vast cotton fields has reduced the annual inflow of water from the Aral Sea’s two tributaries -- Amu Darya and Syr Darya -- by 40 times in four decades.

As a result, Larsen says, the Aral Sea has lost most of its volume and split into two sections, leaving behind a deadly desert. Pollution has left a legacy of diseases such as cancer, cholera, and typhus, while the Aral’s once-large fish population has vanished:

"The area where the water is no longer covered has turned to desert. And winds blow the sands that contain salts and toxic chemicals from agricultural contaminants. And that has a dramatic effect on people's health in the area," Larsen says.

In Kazakhstan, the second-largest lake in Central Asia, Lake Balkhash, is in danger of drying up.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has said that Kazakhstan should adopt better water-management practices. The report says it should cooperate with China over the usage of the Ili River, the lake’s main contributor.

Myrzageldy Kemel, from the Kazakh parliamentary Committee on the Protection of the Environment and Ecology, tells RFE/RL that the increasing usage of the Ili’s water could have repercussions comparable to the Aral Sea tragedy.

"If the level of the [Ili] River decreases, the environment along the [lake’s] banks will be affected drastically. Local citizens will suffer a lot. Now, nobody is paying attention to this, although in about 50 years [the situation] might be even worse than in the Aral Sea," Kemel says.

Lake Hamoun, which is shared by Iran and Afghanistan, has also dramatically suffered from the damming of the Helmand River on Afghan territory and seven years of drought.

Iranian environmentalist Esmail Kahrom says the wildlife, towns, fisheries, and agriculture that once surrounded the nearby wetlands have fallen away, giving rise to a wasteland.

"This lake [almost] disappeared from the face of the earth and the environmental consequences were dramatic. Sand storms created as a result of lack of water in this lake really hurt people. About 250,000 [people] migrated from the area and took their livestock," Kahrom says.

Kahrom says recent rainfalls have refilled one-quarter of the lake. But the Afghan side continues to over-exploit the Helmand’s waters.

Lakes are not only being drained dry. According to the UNDP, farms, mines, refineries, and other industries are heavily polluting Lake Balkhash.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Lake Issykul came close to catastrophe in 1998 when a truck crashed and dumped over 1.7 tons of toxic sodium cyanide into the Barskaun River, which flows into the lake. Four people living upstream died from poisoning but the lake has reportedly not suffered serious damage.

As for Baikal in Siberia, the global conservation organization WWF says the deepest lake in the world is subject to major threats. Those threats stem from pulp mills, aluminum plants, and other enterprises that dump pollutants into the lake and its tributaries.

Toxic waste is also polluting much of the Caspian Sea’s coastline, threatening human health and wildlife. The Caspian is the largest inland body of water on earth.

Kahrom urges countries to cooperate to protect lakes and other ecosystems. "Environmental issues are worldwide issues. But we are still looking at problems [domestically] in a limited area. The way to the future is to think globally and act locally to solve our problems. Aral Sea was a great lesson [but] we don't seem to have learned anything from it yet," he says.

Larsen from the Earth Policy Institute agrees. She calls on countries to begin realizing the benefits of keeping lakes intact.