The Aral Sea

The situation in the Aral sea today

Until 1991 the Aral Sea was a Soviet inland sea, but today is shared by the two independent ex- Soviet republics, Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. Aral Sea gets its water from two major rivers named the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. These rivers flow through several different countries. Amu-Darya river is the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Even the desert country of Turkmenistan is supplied of the water from this river. Syr Darya flows through a fertile valley where three countries meet, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Aral Sea is shrinking
These rivers flowing through central Asia’s deserts are extremely important in human social and economic perspective. Much of the water in the rivers are used for industrial and domestic use but most are used to irrigated agriculture. So much of the river water is used for irrigation and the very most of the water does not reach the Aral Sea. Sea water evaporates faster than it is replenished, leading to shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The lake is now only 15% of the original surface and contains only 1 / 5 of the initial volume of water. Leading ecologists have calculated that the whole Aral Sea, except perhaps the north, can completely disappear by 2020 unless radical action is taken.

Ecological impact
The Aral Sea is shrinking has brought about a major ecological catastrophe. When the lake decreases, the concentration of salt increases in the water and the drained ground is white of the salt that is left when water evaporates. Salt blown by winds from the Aral Sea, full with heavy metals and pollution from the industry and used pesticides is contaminating the ground water and making inhabitants in the area sick. Infant mortality has risen sharply in the Aral Sea, and many women are anemic, ie. suffer from iron deficiency due. that the water they drink is contaminated with heavy metals. Diseases such as hypertension and jaundice increases rapidly. The native animal and plant life has been severely damaged due to salinisation, pollution and water shortages. Eighty animal and plant species have disappeared from the lake.

Economic Impact
One can also talk about an economic catastrophe. Once 11% of all freshwater fish in the Soviet Union were captured here and the Aral Sea had more then 10 000 fishermen. Today, abandoned fishing boats can be seen several kilometers from the current shoreline. Aral Sea is now almost biological dead except for a salt-resistant carp fish and some mollusks. Munyak, Uzbekistan, once a thriving port town on the Aral Sea coast resembles a ghost town today. The local canning factory in Munyak was once the city’s largest employer. Production has fallen from 17 million cans of seafood canned per year to 2.5 million cans. Today the fish are transported here from the Baltic Sea and the Caspian Sea.

Cotton is grown in Central Asia for a long time, this crop was encouraged during Tsarist times. Cotton cultivation is an extremely water-intensive form of agriculture and expansion of Central Asia’s cotton fields was crucial to the Aral Sea disaster. In the 1970s, began an intensification and expansion of cotton production, in Central Asia, for example, in Uzbekistan extended the cultivated area with 3-4 million hectares, half of which consists of cotton plantations. In Uzbekistan water is also free for households, industry and agriculture, which does not lead to that conservation of water is promoted.

This is also the case in Turkmenistan, where President Niyazov decided that all residents should have the right to free water. Today 80 000 ha arable land is irrigated with water from the Karakum Canal, which brings water from the Amu Darya through almost the entire country. They have succeeded in developing agriculture and even started to grow in the desert sands. Part of the price for Turkmenistan’s greenery is paid elsewhere. The further downstream you come along the river Amu Darya, and the closer you approach the Aral Sea, the more bitter will be comments about Turkmenistan’s water management be. Turkmenistan consumes about 20% of the flood and now the country plans to increase the yield even more with yet another channel. But most of the drain from the Syr Darya and Amu-Darya are Uzbekistan doing. However, there is still no reliable figures on how water is allocated among the various countries. From the beginning the Aral Sea had an inflow of approximately 108 cubic kilometers of water. Every year, to stabilize the lake at its current level it requires an inflow of about 40 cubic kilometers, this corresponds to the annual evaporation. The annual inflow is today, approximately, 10 cubic kilometers.

The future

Aral Sea’s future is still uncertain and the solution to the problem complex. To abruptly stop growing cotton would be too hard economic blow to the millions of people living from this industry. Aral Sea lies entirely outside the territory of Russia and Moscow claims to have no formal responsibility for the environmental disaster the Russian planners once accomplished.

1993 a conference was held around the Aral Sea where all the Central Asian states decided to dedicate one percent of GDP in order to save the Aral Sea. They also demanded that Russia would take over 60% of the cost. Russia did not want to listen, and said that Central Asians themselves must learn to conserve water. “Nobody has stolen their water. It is still there, albeit not in the Aral Sea”. 1994 developed “Aral Sea Basin Program, with support from the World Bank and the European Commission, to promote cooperation between countries that use water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. However, it is a slow process in which economic pressure and were olitics often prevents that major steps are taken. With loans from the World Bank, Kazakhstan has undertaken extensive projects to save the smaller northern Aral Sea, which has paid off. 2008, water levels rose by 12 meters compared with the lowest level 2003.

The Central Asian states are divided on the question of the Aral Sea to be or not to be. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are in dispute about how Amu Darya water will be allocated and in the same way Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan disagree on how the water from the Syr Darya should be used. Ethnic unrest in the region can also add to the problems and create collaborative difficulties. A sensible cooperation is a prerequisite for the Aral Sea to be saved.