Friday, April 10, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘The Youngest Desert in the World is Where the Aral Sea Used to Be’

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 10 – Where the Aral Sea once was, Central Asians are saying, there has appeared “the youngest desert in the world, the Aralkum,” and as a result, the people living near it are suffering and the countries around it are increasingly being drawn into serious conflicts over ever scarcer water resources.
In an article in Kyrgyzstan’s “Khabar” news agency this week, Valentin Rakhmanov says that those who thought that only conflicts like the Cold War competition between the Soviet bloc and the West could wipe off the map significant geographic locations are being proved wrong by what is happening in Central Asia now (
There, he writes, “as a result of a complex set of political-economic contradictions,” some rooted in the past and others in the actions of the governments of the region, “an entire sea, the Aral, is in the process of disappearing from the map” and is being replaced by “the youngest desert in the world, the Aralkum.”
Throughout its history, Rakhmanov points out, the Aral Sea has been “supported by two rivers, the Syr-darya and the Amu-darya,” which rise in Kyrgzystan and Tajikistan and provide water for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. But their flows have been significantly reduced both by human actions and by climatic change, and the Aral Sea is dying as a result.
On the one hand, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, faced with ever more serious energy shortages, have built hydroelectric dams which limit the flow of water downstream. At the same time, the downstream states -- and particularly Uzbekistan -- as a result of population pressure have developed their cotton plantations which require enormous amounts of water.
And on the other, the region over the last several generations has changed climatically, with less precipitation and more warm days, thus reducing the amount of water that the two river systems have carried to the Aral and increasing the amount of evaporation and filtration along their routes.
The Aral has been in decline since the 1960s, Rakhmanov continues, and large areas that had been “covered by water have been converted into deserts,” with fishing boats beached far from any sea and the people who used to ply them not only left without occupation but suffering from various diseases produced by this change.
What is especially worrisome to many, the Kyrgyz writer says, is that the drying up of the lake has exposed several small islands where in the past “Soviet scholars at one time tested various kinds of weapons, including biological ones. There is no certainty,” he points out, “that there will not a leaking out” of what they left behind.
In Soviet times, Moscow mediated among the republics of the region, enforcing water sharing arrangements that slowed this process, Rakhmanov says, but since 1991, the five countries most immediately involved have competed rather than cooperated. And that has made things worse, especially since neither Russia nor international agencies have done much to help.
For the Russian government, the Kyrgyz journalist writes, such ecological questions rank far below economic and geopolitical concerns, and for international agencies, there are relatively few chances to influence the situation given that they are not in a position to push effective pressure on the governments of the countries involved.
Tragically, and in confirmation of Rakhmanov’s analysis, Russian media today reported that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the three downstream countries, are in the process of creating “a water-energy bloc” against Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two water surplus states (Regnum as reported by
To the extent these two blocs in fact emerge – and there is every reason to believe that they will -- conflicts over water and energy in Central Asia will intensify, with the Aral Sea and the people living around it being the first victims of this process but, because such ecological changes cannot be localized, far from the last.

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