Aral Sea and relations between Central Asian states
21/01/2004, Oleg Sidorov
Aral is dying and this indisputable fact for a long time doesn't leave in peace many countries and political figures.
Since the middle of the 60-s an abrupt fall in the level of water in it has been observed. Currently, only 15-20 per cent of water are contained in the sea. In South Aral at an area of 200-300 kilometres to the east and 50-100 kilometres to the north-south the bottom has been disclosed. The depth of Aral currently makes 8 metres.
Amudarya is currently separetd from Aral by a ten kilometre salt beach. The annual discharge of salt in the atmosphere makes 1 million tons. The wind spreads tons of salt and sand from the dried up sea bottom in the radius of 350 kilometres, which can serve as a reason for a catastrophe on a regional scale.
Moreover, a thesis about the salt air currents negatively influencing the glaciers of Pamir, North Caucasus and even Swiss Alps becomes quite popular.
The international foundation for the rescue of Aral, established on an initiative of the heads of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan periodically carries out meetings with participation of the top persons of the republics, but the efficiency of such events is extremely low. The meeting participants converge in an opinion that it is impossible to rescue Aral without realising the project of turning Siberian rivers developed in the times of USSR. But how much realistic it is? And will Moscow agree with the point of view of the countries, interested in resolving the Aral issue?
Various international organisations, investing significant financial funds into the rescue of Aral are involved in the problem solving process. But when the aid from international public is received, the main reason for the decline of Aral is not named: a hopeless management system, which can't be fed by any rivers and which is programmed for a fiasco in advance. Thus, only ten per cent of water that did not reach the Aral Sea (although it would make much more sense to call it a lake, because its depth is not enough for considering it a sea), were used properly - the remaining water soaked through earth walls of drainage systems and channels, evaporated from the surface of waterlogged soil. And no matter how big is financial and material aid on the part of international community, without a change in the system of water usage and water supply this aid will be vanishing, as Aral water into the soil - without return or any results.
In the past the Aral was the fourth biggest lake in the world and the Aral area was a flourishing oasis. During the existence of USSR the Aral was not only a water reservoir, filled with life giving moisture, favouring a soft climate around the lake, but also a good help for many republics during the irrigation period.
Then it seemed that the reserves of water in Amudarya and Syrdarya flowing into the Aral were limitless, therefore an issue of economising it during the construction of irrigation systems was not taken into account at all. But the scale of irrigated agriculture in the basin of Aral Sea exceeded opportunities of this eco-system, hastening the beginning of its end.
It may be said that by the beginning of the 90-s the sea lost around 50% of its water resources. After the parade of sovereignties the sea continued to diminish in size. Already in 1995 the sea lost around three quarters of water, the coast shifted by 100-150 kilometres. It favoured an appearance of arid lands, which became a place for a formation of a new desert with a corresponding name - Aralqum. A process interwoven with an increase of the desert area, salinisation swamping of the soil on one hand and a deterioration of climate on the other started. Negative consequences emerged as a result of the beginning of disappearance of Aral and an appearance of a new desert - an abrupt deterioration of the quality of water and of population's health.
There is another problem, related with the desiccation of Aral Sea, which many try to forget - it is the isle of Renaissance. Yet in the USSR times bacteriological weapons were created and tested there and after the desiccation of Aral Sea a double threat emerged: a circulation of viruses dangerous for human organisms and an extension of their range. And it becomes a reality, because currently cultures of anthrax, plague and other infections are circulated beyond the Aral region. Such realities cannot avoid worrying the republics, which in one way or another are connected with the Aral and its hydro-resources. And an establishment of an International Fund for the Rescue of Aral is a measure for stirring up the activities of the republics as well as coordination of their activities in that direction.
But, despite declarations and appeals to the UN, meetings within this organisation don't promote any co-operation between the countries. The main reason for vain activities of the International Fund for the Rescue of Aral lies in geopolitical interests of the heads of Central Asian republics, prevailing over adopting joint decisions on the rescue of Aral. Ambitions in this case are posed above the destiny of the Aral. Virtually on all meetings of Central Asian republics on various levels a statement that the recovery of Aral water resources is practically impossible without a financial and material support of the international community is repeated. But how much efficient is this support, if four sovereign states up until recently have not been capable of developing a single plan for the rescue of Aral? Positions, held by Central Asian republics with reference to the destiny of Aral, do not allow to speak about any coordination in their activities, which is already for a long time a barrier for a beginning of realisation of any large scale projects for the rescue of Aral.
In their turn multiple international organisations, disappointed about the activities of the republics concerning the Aral, agree that its destiny has already been determined. According to the UN experts, by 2020 it is most likely that the Aral will cease to exist. But there are people in the zone of environmental disaster, who may be saved, and this task is more urgent, according to many experts, than the revival of hopelessly dying "organism".
Although, for justice's sake, an existence of other points of view should also be noted. One of them is concentrated on a rational use of remaining water resources of the Aral. It can be done in two ways: through a cessation of irrigating by traditional methods (which furthered the desiccation of Aral significantly) and a transfer to the sprinkling irrigation as in Saudi Arabia (where water is distributed through sprinklers), as well as a construction of synthetic pipelines and concrete channels. The existing concept of turning Siberian rivers won't save the Aral, because the supply of water from Ob is a harmful measure for the environment and a cost for economy. Such a trick is not going to influence the ecology positively either - it means more salination. Because the water will pass through a channel with an earth, not concrete, bed, which implies swamping. Only in that case they will be not sweet, but salty, because here an old truth is valid - the more water, the more salt. In this context the project of turning Siberian rivers looks obviously costly for the Central Asian republics. However, it was regarded here only from the point of view that Moscow agrees. Which is quite improbable, because for Moscow the realisation of Siberian rivers turning would bring only negative consequences. Besides, the Siberian rivers mean more for Russia, than just a source of hydro-resources. The Trans-Ural area is an oxygen bag for Europe and European country are unlikely to sacrifice their ecological safety for the sake of Central Asia.
The existing concept of dividing the Aral Sea into three parts with a help of a dam, which would separate the North Aral from the South Aral, does not find any support in the Central Asian republics either.
On one hand the separation of Aral into several water reservoirs by a dam looks reasonable, on the other one - it is unrealisable in practice. According to representatives of ecological organisations, the problem of Aral can be resolved not at the expense of transferring 10% of Amudarya flow to Afghanistan, but thanks to reduction of water consumption period by Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who get hold of 90% of the river flow in the irrigation. Tashkent and Ashgabat may disagree with that though. In that case the concept does not get any support from the participants of the process of Aral rescue and is doomed for oblivion.
Speaking about possible consequences, it should be taken into consideration that a change in the climatic regime of the region will only promote migrating and depopulation processes.
For the Central Asian republics the possession of water resources and reserved of potable water has a big importance, in economic, as well as in military strategic sense. Exactly on that reason each time when the interstate contradictions develop in the region, issues of functioning of river and water saving systems will be raised, which once more demonstrates an incapacity of the states to unite for resolving the regional problem.