Rescue of the Aral Sea as a model for regional integration
text: Olga Steblova , exclusively for Gazeta.kz
An event that without any exaggeration can be called the environmental event of the year, has taken place recently in Almaty.
We are talking about the International Aral Sea Basin Water and Food Security Conference (ABWF 2005).
It was organised by the international association for the promotion of co-operation with scientists
from the New Independent States (INTAS) and an independent expert consultative centre for the support of scientific studies, a basic organisation of the National Information Centre of the European Community's sixth framework programme on development of science and technologies, with the support of the National Academy of Sciences.
All these long titles mean one basic thing - international organisations have remembered about the Aral Sea problem again.
In the beginning of the 1990-s they wrote about this problem not less than about the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground. The Aral Sea was a subject for international conferences as well as the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground. Foreign experts quoted horrible facts of the sea drying's influence on the global environmental situation, for instance, the fact that the Aral salt particles were being brought by winds as far as Scandinavia and faraway Arctic regions.
However gradually the information flows around this subject started to dry out as the Aral Sea itself, and by the beginning of this century, everybody forgot about this sore regional problem.
We will not exaggerate if we say that now even our well-educated compatriots would hardly remember about it at a first try.
Meanwhile the region has remained totally without people and as a result the local population faces its problems all alone, such as, for instance, a lack of normal potable water, without mentioning the rest. A number of projects was realised at the state level, but their scale was not enough.
In some sense the conference ABWF 2005 is something like repayment of old debts, at least moral ones.
In relation with this everybody paid attention to what Anatoliy Riabtsev, chairman of the committee on water resources, Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, said on the conference opening day:
- We were expecting a lot from the Paris club, when the big world business announced its readiness to allocate 2 billion USD for the resolution of the Aral Sea problem. But, unfortunately, although intentions were declared, there have not been any concrete steps made. We have been waiting for a whole decade seeing that the Aral Sea continued to die.
The Aral Sea is being divided into several separate ponds. The water showing the former sea bottom, now covered with salt dust, whose thickness sometimes reaches two metres! When wind brings it to mountain glaciers this salt makes them melt down even faster, adding to the general meltdown acceleration because of the climate changes.
And here comes another "spiral" of problems: the water flows caused by this meltdown descending in periods when they are unsuitable for the agricultural irrigation create communal and economic problems. Besides, the salty dust of the Aral Sea pollutes agricultural land in the neighbouring regions, let alone the grave impact of these processes on the life of local population.
It can't be said though that the Aral Sea has been completely forgotten in the world: the same conference ABWF 2005 was dedicated to the results of a competition of proposals on research of the Aral Sea problems announced in October, 2000, by INTAS, le Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS), France, and the German Scientific Research Centre (DFG).
19 international research projects got financing during the competition, the majority of them are being completed and the conference became a sort of a test of their efficiency.
Of course, any help should be thanked for, but the advances distributed by the West ten years ago and the reality should be distinguished.
One fact should be also noted: sometimes growing attention in the West towards such problem in time coincides with some serious political processes and events capable of influencing interests of Western countries.
For example: the end of the 1990-s and the beginning of the 2000-s, the time of aggravating interior political situation in some countries of our region, one of whose components is the low life standard.
It means that there is a threat of mass migration flows that can reach respectable European countries just like particles of the Aral Sea salt.
This is why new initiatives emerge for resolving problems of the post-Soviet states. The problems are not resolved cardinally by these initiatives, but they help to gather information on the state of affairs.
Again it should be repeated that Kazakhstan receives any help from abroad with gratitude, although it is difficult to forget this incompatibility: the recognition of the Aral Sea problem on the planetary level and very small amounts of real aid.
For example, the budget of the competition to which the Almaty conference was dedicated amounted to 3 million euros.
Somewhat much less than the 2 billion USD… But the problem is not even in this.
Looking the truth in the eyes, it should be said that Kazakhstan will obviously have to resolve this problem, which is so significant for the entire Central Asian region, alone.
Although it is directly related with (apart from us) Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and indirectly also with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (these mountainous countries also suffer from the salt accumulated on their glaciers).
But we should not expect any grand enthusiasm on the part of our neighbours. Somebody is immersed in the interior problems they don't have a possibility to care for the Aral Sea or about the environmental problems in general, others don't have money.
In the majority of cases it's both. Uzbekistan is of course an exception, but the volume of works to be performed by Kazakhstan to rescue the Aral Sea (or rather what's left of it) is objectively bigger.
And here is another facet of the Aral problem. To resolve it the region's countries must not only unite, but do it under the leadership of Kazakhstan, which is necessary.
It is an indisputable fact that Kazakhstan is richer and more developed than the other Central Asian states and its voice is heard much better in the world.
And it is important in such projects, no matter how different Western promises from the real facts. Actually the mega-project of the Aral Sea rescue, could become a model for the regional integration, about which a lot was said lately, but nothing came out of it, just like in the case of the Western billions.
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