After decades of concern over the drying up of the Aral Sea, one of the world's greatest environmental disasters, a dike is being built to save at least a portion of the sea.
Prague, 28 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Experts agree there is no way to return the Aral Sea to its traditional level prior to 1960 -- the year that the two rivers that fed it -- the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya -- were diverted for irrigation purposes.
The gradual evaporation of the Aral Sea has laid bare more than 50,000 square kilometers of seabed. The steadily shrinking sea covers part of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan to the north is now seeking to preserve its part of what remains of the Aral Sea. With help from the World Bank, it has launched a project to construct a dike around a section of the sea and improve water-management systems along the Syr-Darya River, to increase the flow of water into the sea.
Kudaibergen Askarov works for the Kazakh Agriculture Ministry's water resources agency. "The water resources agency in 2002 launched a new project to build up the banks of the Syr-Darya River and to save the northern part of the Aral Sea. Two components of that project are being implemented. One concerns the hydro-technical system [of the Syr-Darya River] and the other a dike on the Aral Sea. The two companies who have won the tender are working on it and should finish by November 2006," Askarov says.
Two-thirds of the project's $86 million price tag is being covered by a World Bank loan, with the rest coming from the Kazakh state budget.
Work on the 12 kilometer dike, which started last month, is expected to be completed next year. It will prevent Syr-Darya water from flowing down into the southern Aral Sea, keeping it in the northern Aral Sea instead.
The project, it is hoped, will put some 600 square kilometers of exposed seabed back under water within four years. At that point, any excess water will be allowed to once again flow down into the southern Aral Sea.
The project has drawn considerable praise. Observers expect the increased flow of water will lower the Aral's salt content, allowing the restoration of once-abundant fish species. They also hope it will lead to the expansion of pastures and help improve the safety of groundwater, which some health experts say has led to an increased cancer rate.
Ken McNamara is a natural resources management specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Central Asia.
"I believe this is a positive development and a positive step that the government of Kazakhstan is taking. It will quite dramatically change the makeup of the lake. It'll make it less salty [and] less polluted. It will bring lots of different species of fish back into the lake because the water quality will change. So it really should help the fishing industry of Kazakhstan quite a bit," McNamara says.
According to the World Bank, the dike will most probably have no additional detrimental effect on the southern Aral Sea, despite diverting water flow back into the northern part. The southern section's evaporation is generally more advanced and more difficult to reverse. Waters from the Amu-Darya River, once the main supply for this part of the sea, no longer reach the southern portion.
McNamara says the dike project should eventually prove a benefit to the Aral's southern portion as well: "This will allow more water resources to flow into the Aral Sea. So it should help not only the north Aral Sea but there are gates or overflow sections of the dike that will, when the level gets to a certain point, feed into the [southern] Aral Sea, the larger part which is surrounded by Uzbek territory. So it should have some positive effect there, too."
But McNamara insists that the project will never restore the Aral Sea to its pre-1960 levels.
For the level of the whole Aral Sea to start rising again, you have to look at what caused it to drop in the first place. And that is the diversion of vast amounts of water for the irrigation sector in Uzbekistan. There is really no indication at this point that the Uzbek government is willing to reduce the amount of irrigated land for the purpose of refilling the Aral Sea. Most experts look at the situation and say that [the main body of the Aral Sea] is actually going to continue to become less and less."
(Edige Magauin from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)