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The case of the ever-shrinking ‘sea’

Updated January 22, 2017

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Aral Sea, originally a fresh water lake with an area of 67,300 square kilometres is known as a manmade disaster since 1960. Geographically speaking, Aral Sea is situated approximately 600 km east of the Caspian Sea. There used to be more than 1,100 islands separated by lagoons and narrow straits, which gave the sea its name in Kazakh — ‘Aral’ means ‘island’. The rivers Amu and Syr have supplied water to it for centuries until these were diverted by the Soviet authorities for irrigation and industrialisation purposes in Central Asia, as a result of which the Aral Sea began to shrink. By 1991, it had lost more than half of its area.

The erosion of Aral Sea not only caused a large-scale environmental catastrophe but also reduced the supply of fresh water to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which shared the water of the Aral Sea. Fishing, flora and fauna also began to diminish. It was in 1999 that the World Bank came up with a plan to gradually restore the supply of water to Aral Sea from Amu and Syr Darya but the plan is far from implemented.

Before 1960, Aral Sea was not only a source of fresh water for Central Asia but also a source of livelihood for thousands of fishermen. In an interesting article written by Rama Sampath Kumar (“Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia”) published in the September 2002 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, the author writes, “the Aral Sea, a terminal lake fed by two major rivers, the Syrdarya and Amudarya forms a natural border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In 1960 it was the fourth largest lake in the world: today it is on the verge of deteriorating into a small and dirty waterhole. The destruction of the Aral Sea is an example of how quickly environmental and humanitarian tragedy can threaten a whole region. The destruction of the Aral Sea is a textbook example of unsustainable development.”


How one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world became a symbol of man-made environmental disasters


Sins of the Soviets

Rusted remains of a fishing boat at the sea bed of the Aral sea, Aralsk, Kazakhstan. Evaporation of one of largest lakes in the world is considered one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters
Rusted remains of a fishing boat at the sea bed of the Aral sea, Aralsk, Kazakhstan. Evaporation of one of largest lakes in the world is considered one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters

When the ill-planned Soviet policy to divert the water of Amu and Syr rivers was being implemented, several canals were constructed for cotton plantations in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Aral Sea began to shrink. During Khruschev’s era, a weird idea was launched by Soviet scientists to replenish the Aral Sea by diverting the water of Siberian rivers into the sea. But such an idea was rejected as it was considered impracticable.

At present the Kok Aral, the largest among the islands (now a peninsula) scattered over the Aral Sea, separates the north-eastern ‘Small Aral’ from the south western ‘Big Aral’. This forms a natural borderline between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The steady erosion of the Aral Sea began “in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution interest in irrigating the central Asia grew. In the late 1930s, under Stalin’s command, the Soviet water ministry began a massive project of water diversion for the purpose of irrigating the steppes in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to prepare them for cotton farming. The first major irrigation project came into operation in 1939 with the construction of the canal surrounding the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan.”

The policy of diverting the waters of Amu and Syr Darya towards the barren and desert lands of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continued even after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. In fact, the diversion of water from Amu and Syr Darya became more extensive as several canals from the two rivers were constructed to yield a high quantum of cotton crop.


"Can the Aral Sea revert back to its position of the 1960 when it was known as the world’s fourth largest fresh water lake?


As rightly described by Elisa Schaar in her article, “Central Asia’s Dead Sea: The Aral’s Slow Demise” published in Harvard International Review (Fall 2001) “these sand dunes used to constitute the sea bed of the world’s fourth largest lake, but since the water level of the Aral Sea dropped due to environmental degradation, mouldering wrecks and salt-encrusted seashells are the only remnants of the area’s one-time maritime splendours. Yet the shrinking of the Aral Sea signifies not only the collapse of the local fishing industry and the retirement of the few old sailors; it drastically increases the potential for instability among Central Asia’s former Soviet Republics.”

During the last five to 10 years, the drying of the Aral Sea brought about noticeable changes in climate conditions. The sea’s warming effect in winter and its cooling effect in summer decreased dramatically. According to the same author, “The Soviet practice of indiscriminately exploiting natural resources to feed its industrial machine had devastating consequences for the Aral Sea region. In 1959, under Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev’s self-sufficiency plan, the Soviets diverted the courses of Amu and Syr Darya rivers, the Aral Sea’s two main feeders, to irrigate newly planted cotton fields in Uzbekistan. With the diversion of two of its feeding rivers, evaporation took its toll on the Aral Sea. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the shrinking of the Aral Sea has caused a socio-economic crisis. Harbours have turned into ghost cities and fish processing factories have shut down, leaving 60,000 people unemployed.”

1989 & 2014
1989 & 2014

Perhaps, no other region in the world has suffered so much as Central Asia because of the mismanagement of water resources. The centralised and the authoritarian mode of governance made it impossible to raise any voice against projects at the expense of the future of the Aral Sea and the lives of hundreds and thousands of people dependent on it for their livelihood.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of five Central Asian states a quarter of a century ago, the scenario changed. Issues which remained suppressed during the Soviet days emerged posing enormous challenges to the newly emerging states. It was surely an uphill task to restore the original shape of the Aral Sea which existed before 1960, particularly when the stakes of the cotton-growing belt, the irrigation of canals and upper-riparian states with dams and hydroelectric projects made it difficult to reach a consensus on dealing with the critical issue of water resources in Central Asia.

An irreversible process?

Can the Aral Sea revert back to its position of the 1960 when it was known as the world’s fourth largest fresh water lake? What are the impediments to restore the Aral Sea of what it was more than five decades ago? There is no quick fix solution to the sea’s erosion. But since the emergence of independent Central Asian states two steps have been taken. First, in-depth studies have been carried out by the World Bank and the United Nations on how to replenish the Aral Sea, and secondly, efforts have been made by the upper and lower riparian Central Asian states to mitigate this man-made disaster. Yet the stumbling block to ensuring an uninterrupted water supply from Amu and Syr Darya to the Aral Sea is excessive cultivation of cotton and the construction of dams on the two rivers.

The suggestion by presented by World Bank experts to ensure the sustained supply of water from Amu and Syr rivers to the Aral Sea for at least three decades seems impracticable because of the dependence of all the five Central Asian states on these rivers for irrigation, industrialisation and power generation. Second, an intermediate solution to partially replenish the Aral Sea would be to guarantee that at least 50 percent of Amu and Syr river’s water reaches the sea. Furthermore, water management measures such as reducing wastage of water, evaporation and controlling the use of pesticides can help overcome further erosion of the Aral Sea and its environmental implications.

The writer is Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. He can be reached at amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 22nd, 2017