Vienna, September 29 – The demise of the Aral Sea, the loss of which is already having an adverse effect on two-thirds of the 50 million people in Central Asia, is rapidly increasing tensions in the capitals of the five countries of the region and could spark new and larger military conflicts among them, according to a Russian expert.
In an article posted today on the Chaskor.ru portal, Mikhail Vovk says that the desertification of what had been one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water “could lead in the foreseeable future to the rise of a series of armed conflicts between states [there] over the right to control sources of potable water” (www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=10769).
But even before any of these conflicts break out, there is a more pressing concern, Vovk says. There are fears Afghan rebels might stage a raid on the Vozrozhdeniye facility where the Soviet military tested and then stored biological weapons. That facility had been on an island in the Aral, but as a result of the retreat of the sea’s waters, it is now reachable via dry land.
The longstanding tension between the two water-surplus countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the three water-short countries, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has been exacerbated by the decision of Bishkek and Dushanbe to use more of the flow to power hydro-electric facilities and thus release less water downstream.
Because Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the poorest countries in the region, they have little choice but to generate power in this way, especially because following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow is not in a position to insist that the others supply them with cheap power in exchange for water.
But the Soviets bear significant responsibility for the current situation. By deciding to make Central Asia a cotton-growing center, the communist regime ensured that the three down-stream countries of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya watersheds have ever less water available for drinking and have few choices but to demand it from their neighbors.
The Aral’s decline began in the middle of the last century, but it has accelerated over the last decade, Vovk suggests. In 1989, it had shrunk to the point of dividing in two parts – the Small Aral in the north and the Greater Aral in the south. Its waters became increasingly saline, killing fish and the fishing industry. And the area around it became ever more a desert.
That in turn led to dust storms which spread across the region into China and north into Russia as far as Orenburg. And they increase increased mortality and morbidity rates across a wide swath of territory. Among those living closest to what had been the sea, 75 out of every 1000 newborns die, and 80 percent of women suffer from anemia.
More than half of the population in the immediate area, Vovk continues, suffers from cancer, tuberculosis, typhus, and hepatitis, all diseases that the drying up of the sea has exacerbated. And experts say that now two-thirds of the 50 million residents of Central Asia as a whole suffer as a result of the desertification of the Aral.
Given this impact, it is not surprising that governments in the region have sought a way out but so far with little success. In 1993, the heads of the five countries created an International Foundation for the Salvation of the Aral Sea, but the only country that attracted significant funding was Kazakhstan which secured a World Bank loan to save the northern Aral.
With few prospects that they will be able to reorient their economies or significantly slow population growth, the four other countries have been unable to take any serious steps or reach any water-sharing agreement. And as a result, “relations among these former Soviet republics are so tense that they with great probability will lead to war rather than to peace.”
Vovk gives as an example of this the tensions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Despite their common membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Organization of the Treaty on Collective Security, both maintain tight visa regimes on the other and have mined their common frontiers.
Unfortunately, he continues, “similar relations exist among the other countries of this region as well,” with tensions between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan further exacerbated by the desire of each to be the leader of Central Asia and their concerns about rapid population growth in neighboring states.
Russia is involved on all sides, but its ability to “regulate the conflicts,” Vovk points out, is limited by its interest in building the dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that are viewed in the other three countries as a major part of the water problem. Consequently, Moscow has not had the success it says it hopes for.
As a result, Vovk concludes, “no fundamental changes for the better will take place” in Central Asia anytime soon. And thus there is a great risk that one or another of the five countries will be tempted to consider using military means to slice through “the knot of problems arising from the drying up of the Aral Sea” in order to get enough water for its people to drink.