Clear and Present Danger
05/02/2002, Lev Skripin
For the sake of Afghanistan international community seeks to complete death of Aral Sea
Only mindless Soviet brains were ever capable of turning river flows backwards. However a few days ago world community heard about a project under which Aral waters from Kazakhstan were to provide a source of fresh water for post-war Afghanistan. For this Aral is to be divided into three parts, and Amudarya river is to carry water to Afghanistan territory. Significant funds are to be allocated for the project.
Afghanistan definitely needs water in order to rehabilitate its poor agriculture. But what about lands near Aral? Fragile ecological balance of the vast region would be finally distorted, and two Kazakh oblasts would likely turn into lifeless desert. Consequences might be even harsher, for similar reservoirs shape climatic conditions of a number of areas.
Nevertheless it was stated - a unique lake, which for its size is often referred to as sea, could solve Afghanistan fresh water problem. This opinion was expressed by participants of the international conference on Afghanistan rehabilitation, which was held in Tokyo a week ago. Huge potential funding by world community was mentioned - over four billion US dollars.
Partly the funds could be used to provide Afghanistan with substantial fresh water. And Aral might be the source of the latter, for scientists believe the lake cannot be rescued. However the concept by American and Japanese scientists is criticized by their Kazakhstani counterparts, who say parching of the world's biggest lake would lead to a global catastrophe and climatic changes all over the planet.
Long-suffering Aral region has therefore found itself facing another threat. For several decades now this area has been a zone of ecological disaster, which had started due to its drying out. Second-largest locked water reservoir on Earth (after Caspian Sea) is dying slowly. Lake level was falling down since early 60-s. Before that a number of generations used to live and feed on its shores. Huge fish reserves, water birds and animals - everything has gone forever. Within a single decade between 1960-1970 sea level dropped by two meters. And the entire fall within four decades was 17 meters.
Versions as to why Aral is drying out are reduced to mostly inadequate utilization of Aral water for agricultural purposes. Some scientists link the problem to strong earthquakes in the 80-s, when Aral-feeding Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers began to suffer major infiltration losses. Now one can see mostly parched soil spots and abandoned boats in place of a sea.
Aral water also deteriorated. Scientists point out low microorganisms, deviations in their composition, sharp decrease of plankton and fish reserves due to inadequate feeding and vanishing of traditional spawning sites.
However, it is not just fish and plants that suffer, for nature bounds in complex ties. Environmental situation in a number of Kyzylorda and Aktyubinsk districts declined. 50% of Aral basin residents suffer from respiratory diseases, cancer advances, people endure TB and anemia. Unemployment and absolute hopelessness rule in the area.
A number of forums and conferences were dedicated to Aral problem. There are public institutions that are dealing with the issue. Unfortunately, talk prevailed, although local scientists had long ago prepared a program of rescuing part of Aral - a so-called Small Sea. Syrdarya river water supply should be set up for that. However, such methods require substantial funding, and so far the state has not come up with any, although at Kazakh geographic research institute they believe the project is realistic, and its cost is not that high at all - compared to a threat of turning the area into a desert. Salts of the latter might spread at huge distances, which would cause global climatic changes.
Nevertheless, Japanese and American scientists are sure no projects could save Aral. They believe remaining water should be given to Afghanistan to reanimate the long-suffering state. Once the opinion was voiced in Tokyo, one should expect practical steps soon. Moreover, Kazakhstan was promised funds and compensations.
Fears for future of Afghanistan are understandable. However, there are other problems linked to Aral. Biological weapons remains from Sverdlovsk military test site were buried on Vozrozhdeniye isle of Aral Sea in late Soviet years. A military test site for bio-weapons is also there. What happens now is that the isle is turning into a peninsula due to parching.
A few years ago Americans paid a visit to the isle and screamed alarm. They were apparently worried about possible distribution of anthrax, plague, as well as other deathly infections. After a number of scandal articles in Western media a Phoenix program was launched in Kazakhstan. Once executed it would clear the isle of bio-weapons remains. However, lack of funding halted the project.
Meanwhile danger keeps growing. Not only birds and rodents freely access land from the isle, but also individuals, hungry for non-ferrous metals scrap from former military sites. Drying of the sea would make a danger of circulation by dangerous viruses clear and present. Winds would spread sands and dust containing stems of diseases created by Soviet military whiz doctors.
Scientists and politicians would most likely engage in discussions over a Tokyo proposal. Majority might well consider it dangerous for the future of the nation and mankind. Still, as a rule, projects backed up by substantial funding do not run into any strong objections. And the so-called common sense, which in this case means nothing but quick profit, might prevail. Then Kazakhstan would lose Aral and inherit a bunch of new environmental problems. In which case one could site Alexander Blok - "And a late sick kin would damn them for years to come"…