Central Asia attempts to revive the Aral Sea

The drying up of the Aral Sea is an environmental and human tragedy. Can the region now reverse this man-made disaster?

The drying up of 90% of the Aral Sea and desertification of most of its territory is one of the most visible environmental disasters in the world over the last fifty years.

The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. It was a rich haven for fish, birds and other wildlife and had a number of bustling fishing ports. But in the 1960s, the Soviet Union dammed and diverted the two large rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea to boost cotton production. The sea disappeared and turned into desert, proving disastrous for local people and ecosystems.

The northern portion of the sea in Kazakhstan is now being revived. The World Bank and Kazakh government have spent millions of dollars trying to refill the water and revive fish life; progress has been modest, but real. In an excellent documentary broadcast on Aljazeera this week, film maker Ensar Altay travelled to Kazakhstan to follow efforts around the lake.

However, there is little prospect of similar changes in the southern section, which lies in poorer Uzbekistan and has been largely abandoned to its fate.

According to Minority Rights Group:

“The volume of water reaching the sea has continued to shrink, as industrial and domestic use of water also increases. The region’s fishing industry has been destroyed, desertification has consumed much of the surrounding agricultural land and local climate change, especially falling rainfall, is also affecting farmers further afield.

The quality of drinking water in the area is deteriorating because of the toxic residues of past over-use of pesticides and defoliants. Exacerbated by grossly inadequate levels of health care, this has led to rises in kidney, thyroid and liver diseases and anaemia caused by reduced iron absorption, as well as tuberculosis and cancer.”

Last month the United Nations and Uzbek government launched a rather belated programme to improve local infrastructure and health facilities for local communities.

But resolution of the Aral Sea problem is muddied by interstate disputes over water use. Uzbekistan’s government is alarmed about the building of large hydroelectric dams in upstream countries, particularly the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan.  There are also concerns about the increased demand for water in Afghanistan, another upstream state.

Any solution to the Aral Sea problem will require cooperation throughout the basin. Serik Duisenbayev, a member of a local fishermen’s NGO interviewed for the Aljazeera documentary, said: we must “…keep the balance between nature and humans beings. I think not only people of Aralsk and Kazakhstan. I think it should be a good lesson for the whole world now”.