Global climate changes and human economic management (to be more exact, mismanagement) have caused a number of global environmental disasters. Among them is the death of the Aral Sea and the desertification of its basin.
The Aral tragedy, the negative consequences of the lake’s shrinkage, and a search for the ways to stabilize the environmental situation in the region were high on the agenda of the international conference “Cross-Boarder Ecological Problems in Central Asia and Legal Instruments for their Solution,” held in Tashkent in November 2010. The conference was organized by the popular Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan. This movement has 15 representatives in Uzbekistan’s legislative body, the Oliy Majlis.
The conference was attended by over 250 participants, including 110 prominent scientists, experts and representatives of civic environmental organizations from India, China, the US, Turkey, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, France, Japan, and other countries. Incidentally, there were seven representatives of Ukraine, including Hero of Ukraine Semen Potashnyk, chair of the board of directors of Ukrhydroenergo Plc.
The Aral Sea has undergone major transformations in the past 50 years. Its water surface has shrunk more than sevenfold — from 65,000 to 9,000 square kilometers. The water level has dropped by a staggering 26 meters. The lake bank has receded by 100-120 km. Water mineralization has risen from 10 to 120 g/l, and to 280 g/l in the eastern part. While 1964 satellite photos show a big, quasi-circular body of water of about 250 km in diameter, there is in fact no Aral Sea on the pictures from 2009.
Instead, there is a narrow 30-40-km-wide chain of small lakes, resembling a riverbed.
What used to be a seabed is now a saline field covered with wind-blown sand. Violent storms raise a mixture of salt and sand high into the air within a radius of 500 km or more, thus polluting and salinizing fertile lands. Scientists claim that Aral dust has already found its way to the Arctic.
The extinct sea has triggered the aridification [the process by which a humid region becomes increasingly dry – Ed.] of an already overheated region, which is now showing a 1-1.5 Celsius increase in the maximum air temperature. Correspondingly, the number of days with temperatures of over 40 Celsius has gone up to 10-12 per year. Sometimes the temperature reaches 49 degrees.
Naturally, fish have disappeared in the sea under these conditions. Earlier, there were 20 species of fish there, with an average catch of 30,000 tons. In the town Muynak, Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, where there was a major fish canning plant in the 1970s-1980s, residents have now lost jobs and plant structures are falling into ruin.
The Aral basin is now posing a real threat to the environment, flora, fauna, human health and biodiversity in the entire region. The Asian cheetah, the Caspian tiger, the Transcaspian urial [a species of sheep – Ed.], and the Turkmenian onager have vanished; Brandt’s hedgehog, the Persian gazelle, the Turkmenian caracal, the yellow heron, the pink and Dalmatian pelicans, the desert monitor, and other, animal species are on the verge of extinction, with some of them being on the IUCN Red List. Even the saiga, a horned peer of the mammoth [an antelope – Ed.], once numbering about one million head, is now a rarity.
Extinct plants include the Sogdiana tulip, Malacocarpus critlimiiolius, and the heart-shaped peppergrass. The feather grass, Salsola Chiwensis, the Buhse tulip, and Euphorbia sclerocyathium are all endangered.
In fact, what used to be the Aral Sea bed is now a desert already called Aralkum, by analogy with Kyzyl Kum and Karakum. The Aral desert’s area is five million ha. It is a globe disaster indeed. The great Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who sketched the Aral banks, islands, straits, and settlements during the 1848-49 Russian Aral exploration expedition, once said: “A sea all around, and a sorrow in the middle.” But it was only a socioeconomic disaster at the time. The blue sea, as the Aral was called at the time, remained a gorgeous full-fledged water body.
The outer signs of an environmental disaster could not but catch the eye of the conference’s 70 participants who first arrived by chartered flight to Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan, 1,200 km away from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and then covered another 220 km on comfortable buses to what used to be the seaport of Muynak.
A thinly-populated dry plain spreads out on the way to the “sea,” with white saline lands all around and empty flush basins that are futilely waiting for water. You can see from a steep Aral Sea shore a graveyard of fishing boats, boundless sands, occasional patches of withered plants, and a camel caravan in between. The picture we saw plus the stories told by local elders and 1960s art paintings produced a feeling of depression, anguish, pain, as well as a feeling of responsibility.
Academics are unable to say in no uncertain terms why the Aral has gone extinct. It is a number of natural and manmade factors that caused the disaster. Yet there clearly are two main causes: first, global weather changes, and, second, an overexploited runoff in the upper reaches of the Amu-Darya, Syr-Darya, and other rivers of the region, and an excessive diversion of water for irrigation of cotton fields, vegetables and other crops, as well as gardens and vineyards.
It is common knowledge that the Aral Sea has undergone a rather cyclic evolution in the course of centuries. The sea has seen both humid and dry periods. This empirical fact has been confirmed in chronicles as well as through the study of archeological artifacts. For example, archeologists found the remnants of an almost 600-year-old mausoleum on the seabed in 2001. According to Ihor Kononov, a well-known Ukrainian researcher of the transgressive-regressive evolution of the Aral, who has tackled this problem for over 20 years and authored several dozen scholarly publications, the Aral has gone dry at least three times (in the 10th, 14th and 20th centuries) in the past thousand years. The author believes that the key factor behind the dry-out is the underground diversion of the rivers, which used to empty into Aral, to the Caspian Sea. This scientific hypothesis is quite plausible because the Aral is located above the Caspian Sea. In the former, absolute water levels range between 53 and 27 m, while in the latter it is 25 to 29 m. This difference between the two seas is 50 to 80 m. By the laws of the downward movement of water and of “communicating vessels,” it is quite possible that the Aral “flowed over” into the Caspian Sea. At the same time, the aridification of the climate is a powerful global factor. A severe drought and diminished runoff in 2007-08 drastically sped up the shrinkage.
The most popular explanation of the death of the Aral is excessive and irrational management of the region’s water resources. The Aral basin is a big current-free area of about 200 million ha. It comprises the territories of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, as well as the Dzhambul, Kyzylordynsk and Chimkent oblasts of Kazakhstan and a part of Afghanistan and Iran. On average, the region’s water resources, including reservoirs, represent an annual 105 cubic kilometers, of which 92 are used for irrigation (including 29.5 in the Syr-Darya basin, 57.5 in that of the Amu-Darya basin, and 5 in that of current-free rivers).
A considerable part of the runoff is held back in riverhead reservoirs. In the old reservoirs, water is stored to keep hydroelectric power plant turbines working in the low season, while in the newly-built ones it is used to fill the reservoir bowl in the course of a few years. This procedure essentially complicates the operation of irrigation systems, causing shortages of water destined for irrigation and drinking, and creates artificial ruinous floods — in other words, it adversely affects the overall water and environmental situation in the region. Given the uncontrolled functioning and development of the hydro-engineering complex, these problems can assume a disastrous nature for not only the Aral Sea but also for densely-populated areas in the mid- and low-stream segments of river valleys. This will make these areas more earthquake-prone and increase the danger of dam bursts. For this reason, fini-shing the construction of the world’s highest (335 m) Rogun hydroelectric plant is causing serious worries.
International experience shows that a solution to the Aral problem and other similar issues requires a comprehensive approach: one must take into account radical changes in the water environment of the entire basin, apply the principles of integrated management of water resources and the latest achievements in science and technology, and profoundly study the problem in search of new solutions. It is high time to introduce a single, integrated and multifunctional set of ecologically friendly measures that deal with hydro-engineering, water conservation, land and forest reclamation, organization, environmental education, etc. The Aral problem should be addressed in a balanced and coordinated way, with due account of water security requirements of all the region’s countries, and based on the principles of good neighborly relations and mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation. Only together will the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Turkmenians, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and other peoples that populate the Aral basin be able to solve an extremely difficult water-environment problem.
International involvement and the use of global experience is also important. Ukraine, which once made wide use of Central Asian achievements in irrigation and drainage, has now developed a broad range of up-to-date applicable technologies, including one allowing to determine reasonable norms of watering (with the information system Poyv); a water closed-circuit herbicide-free rice-growth system; reliable watertight canal lining; plastic drainage and drain filters; water-saving drip irrigation techniques; forest protection in the Oleshko sands area, Europe’s largest desert; the experience used for the Dnieper hydropower plant modernization; and the building and use of the world’s largest pumped storage power plants.
The conference unanimously passed the Tashkent Environmental Declaration. This important document states that, not to upset the ecological balance and to avert a negative effect on the environment, human health and biodiversity, it is necessary to rationally use and effectively manage cross-border water resources on the basis of key international legal instruments, including UN conventions; to conduct independent international technical, ecological and civic inspections of major riverhead hydro-engineering projects; to switch over to building more cost-effective and safe small-size hydroelectric plants; to improve access to potable water; to increase the level of public hygiene; to develop small-scale business in the field of water-short production processes, and to reduce industrial pollution emissions.
The Tashkent environmental conference, its recommendations, declaration and positive spirit, a desire for comprehensive, friendly and mutually-advantageous cooperation, as well as the attraction of a wide circle of public and academic devotees on a regional and international level inspire hope for a successful solution of the extremely difficult environmental problem in the Aral Sea basin.
Dmytro Savchuk is a Candidate of Sciences (Technology), head of the hazardous waters laboratory at the Institute of Hydraulic Engineering and Land Reclamation (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine), member of the All-Ukrainian Ecological League’s academic board