Thursday, December 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Approaching Death of Aral Sea Sparks New Interest in Siberian River Diversion Idea

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 4 – The rapid drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia – it is likely to completely disappear within months – has sparked new interest in the possibility that Moscow could divert Siberian river water to the region to save not only the sea but also the health and well-being of the population there.
Although this idea has attracted support from some senior officials in recent times – Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev among them -- it currently draws most of its support from Central Asian cultural figures who are promoting this century-old idea without much attention to what it might cost or the harm it might do.
But their role is not trivial. At the end of the Soviet period, environmentalist movements often provided the first stage in the development of national movements not only in the Russian Federation but in other Soviet republics as well. And consequently, this renewed interest in river diversion may play an important role even if it does not lead to any change in water flows.
At the end of November, the Council of Uzbek-Russian Literature organized a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the “Noviy Mir” writers’ expedition to the Arab Sea, an event which attracted country-wide attention to ecological problems not only in Central Asia but in Russia as well (
That expedition had a dual task, participants in the recent conference said. On the one hand, it sought to push leading Soviet scholars to monitor the state of the Aral Sea and on the other, it hoped to attract the attention of the attention of people throughout the USSR to the drying up of the sea.
According to speakers at the Moscow meeting, “the scholars and writers [of 20 years ago] were able to do a great deal.” Their findings were published in central journals and abroad.
And elites in both Central Asia and Moscow were forced to confront for the first time all the social, economic and demographic consequences of the disappearance of the Aral.
Unfortunately, the speakers continued, the disintegration of the USSR interfered with efforts to save the Aral and stabilize the social-economic situation around its banks. Moreover, social pressure blocked plans to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers. And consequently, the ideas and hopes of the 1988 expedition remained largely “unfulfilled.”
At the memorial meeting, leading scholars from Moscow and Central Asia stressed that “the crisis situation in the region of the Aral Sea” exists because of “the barbaric relationship of people to nature, the thoughtless use of resources for the achievement of cotton independence, and the imposition of cotton monoculture” on Central Asia.
The meeting was the occasion for the presentation of a new “Aral Encyclopedia,” which was prepared by Igor Zonn of Russia and Michael Glanz of the United States as part of the series, “Encyclopedias of the Seas of the Former USSR,” a volume the meeting’s participants hope will provide the basis for new research and new action.
The academic experts and cultural figures who took part in this session say that there is no time to lose. Writer Grigory Reznichenko said that “it is already difficult to talk about the Aral Sea.” It is likely to dies soon, and that will have enormous and extremely negative consequences for everyone.
At present, the Aral Sea has dried to the point that it is not one large body of water but two smaller ones, and around them has emerged a new salt desert, the Aral-kum. And that has already had two serious consequences: the epidemiological situation of the population around what was the Aral is among the worst in the world.
And the countries of the region have now discovered oil and gas deposits under what had been the surface of the sea, prompting a new geopolitical competition and even suggestions that the Karakalpaks of Uzbekistan should ask that their region be returned from that republic to Kazakhstan, something at least a few in Astana apparently support.
As the sea dies, these problems and these struggles will only intensify, and that is why at least some of the participants in last month’s meeting believe that they will find “ever more supporters not only in government offices but among the representatives of Russian public opinion.”

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