Aral Sea update

By Eric Walberg

The ongoing tragedy of the dying Aral Sea and the attempt to deal with its consequences has entered a new, more modest phase. The former grandiose Global Environmental Fund (GEF) project of a decade ago involved all five Central Asian states (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), with each country's president presiding in alternating years. It involved many conferences, many expensive foreign specialists, much travelling to and fro, many studies and reports, until the funding finally dried up in 2003, with not a lot of practical results.

Joint efforts collapse

Since then, although there are continuing joint projects dealing with water and energy, each country has gone its own way with respect to the Aral Sea. This is perhaps unfortunate, but understandable, since the relation of each of the Central Asian states to the Aral is very different, with only Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan directly bordering it.

The great rivers and their tributaries which fed the Aral Sea -- the Syrdarya and Amudarya -- originate in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Amudarya flows through Turkmenistan, which uses massive amounts for irrigation and in the creation of artificial lakes.

However cooperation is unavoidable, as there are serious regional disputes about water usage, involving threats of and actual withholding of water and demands for payment for water usage, as well as problems of chemical pollution and salination of these life-giving entities in this desert region, and these problems will only get worse over time.

Uzbekistan and kazakhstan. Differing Approaches

Looking at just Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, their approaches to dealing with the problems resulting from the drying up of the Aral are an interesting study in contrasts. The Aral is now two seas, split by a ridge which is now above water. While Kazakhstan is focusing on trying to save 'its' northern little Aral Sea by increasing the flow of the Syrdarya into it, Uzbekistan is more concerned with trying to mitigate the social and ecological damage in the Aral basin as a whole, since the remaining flow of the Amudarya after its passage through Turkmenistan barely reaches the Aral Sea. In fact, for a few years in the 1990s, it actually dried up completely before reaching the sea. The Aral Sea shores have receded almost 100 km in the past 20 years in Uzbekistan, less so in the northern Kazakh part.

In an interview with Ubaidulla Nadirkhanov, public relations officer for the Agency of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea for the Implementation of the Aral Sea Basin and GEF Projects (the GEF Agency), the current state of Uzbekistan's work was explained to Peace Magazine.

All funding is from the Uzbek state now, which means a sharp reduction in foreign specialists, international conferences and massive planning projects. The organization hopes to reactivate European and international aid for specific, concrete projects which will give practical results.

Current Uzbek government projects include:

Creation of local water reservoirs in the Aral delta. There is a pilot project at Sudochi Lake, near the old Aral south shore, which was once 40,000 hectares, but shrank to 600 hectares by 2001. It is once again 40,000 hectares, and both fish and migrating birds are now returning. This was achieved by mobilizing all water resources -- snow and rain collection, improved drainage and conservation, and carefully channelling the modest flow of the Amudarya. This pilot project is part of an increase of 160,000 hectares of artificial lakes in the past few years.

While this makes no dent in the ongoing shrinking southern Aral Sea, it does provide hope for locals, who can now catch fish for local consumption and sale and otherwise re-establish their former livelihood. Already at the former Aral Sea port of Muinak, now 100 km from the shore, a fish conserve factory Shams Erkin (Free Sun) has reopened, processing one ton of fish per day harvested in fish ponds in the Amudarya delta.

Creation of forests. There is an ongoing plan to cover 10,000 hectares of the exposed Aral Sea floor with saxsaul to help keep the toxic salt and dust residue from becoming airborne and spreading the tragedy farther afield. About 5000 hectares have been planted to date.

Social assistance. Uzbek efforts are concerned with creating a buffer zone in the Amudarya delta to mitigate the worst effects of the Aral Sea crisis on the local population. Farmers are encouraged to grow cotton and rice, and are provided subsidized feed for livestock.

Improved conservation. Through conservation and better drainage, the flow of the Amudarya into the southern Aral has now been increased from 3-5 to 10-15 cu km per year. The Tashkent Sea dam and the Andijan water reservoir dam are having their engineering and safety features upgraded to deal with the threat of earthquake, flooding, and other disaster scenarios.

The planting of saxsaul on the exposed Aral Sea floor actually dates back to 1982, when Soviet scientists realized the sea was doomed and already drying up. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the planting continued by the Uzbek government till a German organization took the major responsibility for continuing the planting. Project manager Hans Wilbs told Peace Magazine that it is planting 4-7000 hectares per year, employing 60 full time locals, and has already planted 27,000 hectares. The planting is in late autumn and in spring, with seedlings being grown throughout the year and seeds collected by local women in the summer. Monitoring is done by satellite and estimates are that from 30-80% of the plants survive.

New developments on horizon?

There is hope that soon there may be a "GEF II" Central Asian project, bringing all the Central Asian countries together again under one broad umbrella. One sign that this might just happen, though with very different sponsors than "GEF I," is the rapidly changing political and economic situation here, spearheaded by Chinese and Russian moves toward greater involvement in Central Asian developments -- in particular, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These new organizations mean that the formerly weak and isolated Central Asian countries (except Turkmenistan) have a new reason to try to bury neighborly rivalries and work to harmonize their water resource management as part of broader Eurasian integration. After all, the Aral Sea is the first manmade disaster that is visible from space, a fitting symbol of the need for great joint conservation efforts in the interest of all mankind.

Eric Walberg is a Canadian journalist specializing in Central Asia issues.
Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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