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Central Asia: Nature Waits For Cross-Border Sanctuaries To Catch On

The shrinking imprint of the Aral Sea in a NASA satellite image (epa) In an effort to curb  biodiversity loss in some of nature's most blighted regions, some governments are teaming up with their neighbors to set up cross-border protected areas. Such projects seek to reverse destruction that threatens to make life unsustainable for thousands of species of plants and animals and help local communities take care of their environment. RFE/RL examines some of the lessons that Central Asians have endured.

PRAGUE, April 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The irrigation of vast cotton fields in Central Asia has led to the gradual shrinkage of the Aral Sea over the past several decades, leaving behind a parched desert.

The region is contaminated by a toxic mix of chemical residue washed down the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers from farms. These toxics devastate wildlife and threaten human health.

Lessons Learned?

But Esmail Kahrom, professor of zoology and environment sciences in Tehran, says countries in the region don't appear to have learned their lessons.

He says Lake Hamoun, which straddles the Iranian and Afghan borders, has dramatically suffered from the damming of the Helmand River on Afghan territory.

"What happened in Hamoun was that one country was thinking to solve its own problems individually," Kahrom says. "As a result, the river which was feeding Hamoun was utilized by the Afghan government. Dams were built and Hamoun dried up."

Wildlife, towns, fisheries, and agriculture that once surrounded the nearby wetlands have disappeared, creating a wasteland.

Cross-Border Crises

Central Asia's second-largest lake, Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, is in danger of drying up, partly due to over- exploitation of the Ili River, near China.

Years of neglect have also left the largest inland body of water on earth -- the Caspian Sea -- in a precarious state. Its five littoral countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- haven't even resolved the legal status of the sea itself, much less mustered the political will to protect its future.

Martin Kaiser, a forest adviser in Germany for the environmental group Greenpeace, says cross-border cooperation is essential to preserve ecosystems in regions like Central Asia.

"In Central Asia, we have large and big ecosystems which are part of the same problem but also part of the same solution," Kaiser says. "You can't find a solution for one part of the Caspian Sea or the Aral [Sea] or for other ecosystems -- mountain regions -- without having a coherent concept across the borders."

Kaiser argues that the establishment of large-scale protected areas across state borders could help protect Central Asia's 7,000 species of flora, 900 species of vertebrates, and 20,000 species of invertebrates -- many of which are unique to the region.

Starting Somewhere

To address the issue, the Central Asia Trans-boundary Biodiversity Project was launched in 2000 with a grant of more than $10 million from the Global Environment Facility.

The project is aimed at helping Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to integrate four of their protected areas into a unified network -- Aksu-Djabagly in Kazakhstan, Besh-Aral and Sary Chelek in Kyrgyzstan, and Chatkal in Uzbekistan.

But Baktybek Koichumanov, from the Kyrgyz state agency for environmental protection and forestry, stresses that the project has not yet been finalized.

"Now in the Western Tien Shan, according to an agreement between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, a big bio-reservoir is being established," Koichumanov says. "If the governments of the three states sign it to establish a transborder biosphere zone, then, I think, there will be protection for wild animals moving [through borders], as well as for plants, because even plants move across borders."

Model For Action

After all, more durable joint solutions to the problem of man versus nature have been found. Governments in Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia have pledged to create a protected area on the island of Borneo to slow deforestation. A cross-border natural reserve is being created in Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon to preserve Central Africa's best-preserved rainforest. And in the Amazon rainforest, South American governments are working to link national parks and Indian reservations.

Gordon Shepherd, director of the International Policy Unit at the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland, says local communities in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia would benefit from cross-border projects to conserve water resources.

"In all of those areas, a good supply of fresh water is important. That depends upon forests, floods plains, [and the] proper management of river basins so that there is sufficient water passing through countries for industry, agriculture, people, and the ecosystems," Shepherd says. "If you got rid of the ecosystems, then you got floods, pollution -- a whole series of problems. Quite a large number of local communities depend on local fish resources. Quite often people have a high percentage of the proteins they get coming from hunting."

Shepherd stresses that ecosystems exist across politically established lines and must be tended along the lines that nature draws.

"[Cross-border environment degradation] gets you into social problems, poverty problems, and possibly security problems if people start to fight over natural resources," Shepherd says. "And all of that can be avoided if you look at the way ecosystems function and just recognize that by conserving the ecosystem and the services that it gives you forget about the boundary issue you were fighting about [with your neighbor]."

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)