Central Asia and the Aral Sea’s ungraceful death


BISHKEK (TCA) — All said, nothing done. Yes – the Aral Sea must be restored; no – not at our expense. This was roughly the goodbye message Kyrgyzstan gave to one of the (many) paper tigers bearing the banner of Aral preservation before slamming the door.

At a meeting on May 18 in Brussels, the delegation of Kyrgyzstan headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Dinara Kemelova announced that the country was suspending all participations in the International Fund for the Rescue of the Aral Sea (IFRA). The formal reason was that the “reforms” about which the IFRA’s members have been squabbling for years now excluded the interests of member states engaging in hydropower projects assumed to be affecting the future water flows into the “dying sea” on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Electricity, cotton and metals

The governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan claim that their projects are not detrimental to downstream water supplies, the dwindling of which should instead point at the abundant use of river water for irrigation and industry (mainly mining which slurps water) in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – the governments of which claim the opposite. The controversy has gone far enough for the Uzbek President Islam Karimov to declare in public that realisation of the hydropower plans in his country’s two neighbouring states would be seen as a casus belli in Tashkent. The three “downstream states” depend on cotton cultivation and non-ferrous metal mining for large parts of their national incomes.

In contrast to its Kyrgyz counterpart, the government of Turkmenistan at the same meeting announced its full membership to IFRA, apparently deeming that it would be better to join rather than leave the organisation to defend its interests. The fund has been on the side line concerning concrete measures to stem the draining process while Kazakhstan carried out the only tangible action ever made in the process, namely the construction of a dam along the borderline with Uzbekistan. As a result, the Kazakh section of the Aral Sea has become navigable again and the fish population is on the increase, while to its south the moon landscape continues to deteriorate. Loans from the World Bank were used to finance the dam’s construction even though they had not been specifically allocated for the purpose.

Decline first and decay later

Once, the area south of the Aral Sea (or Lake according to another option in endless legal hair-cleaving drags) was an Eldorado, cultivated by the inheritors of Alexander the Great into the kingdom of Bactria, featuring lavish meadows, orchards, estates and cities. Two main rivers coming from the Pamir flew into it: the Syr-Darya and the Amu-Darya. The latter, known as the Oxus in Antiquity, previously flew into the Caspian. Some historians claim it was artificially diverted from its course to the Caspian Sea on the order of the Bactrian monarchs. In later times, the area fell into decline first and decay later.

After the Second World War, the Soviet government decided to make the Aral Sea a source of prosperity once more – and was initially successful in doing so through a large-scale canalisation system. In 1960, the Aral Sea’s level stood at around 53 metre above the global ocean level – about the same level it had in the late Antiquity and early Middle Ages. But neglect in later years, together with ill-managed use of midstream irrigation systems, caused a new setback. By 2007, the Aral Sea’s water level had dropped to around 30 metre above the world’s prevailing ocean level. Today, its Uzbek section is completely dry but for two small water basins to the east and the west respectively. In the absence of freshwater inflow, the water remains stagnant, heavily polluted by salt and chemicals and void of life.

Restoration phantasmagorias

One scheme to restore the Aral Sea is to divert freshwater from the Ob river in Siberia and its tributary the Irtysh which flows across Kazakhstan, through a canal dubbed SibAral, with a width of 200 metre and a depth of 16 metre, over a distance of some 2,500 kilometre. This should bring in up to 60 cubic kilometre of freshwater per year, half of which would feed the Aral Sea and the rest permit the irrigation of 4.5 million hectare along the route. The idea dates from 1870, popped up again in 1940, in 1976 and finally in 2000. Its current price tag has been estimated at 34 billion in US dollar, which makes the project unrealistic – apart from the fact that the Irtysh is heavily polluted with chemical and radioactive material.

Another scheme is to carry salt water from the Caspian by reopening a natural waterway to the Aral Sea, known as the Uzboy Straits which used to exist until around 1500 BC. The canal is part of a master plan proposed back in 2007 by the Kazakh head of state Nursultan Nazarbayev at the St.-Petersburg Economic Forum, and which also includes the reopening of the Manich Strait which used to link the Black Sea to the Caspian till around 200 BC.

Dry end of the line

The mega-schemes remain in vogue, not in the least since it can be expected that the water flow from the Pamir and Tian-Shan mountain ranges is dwindling by 5.4 cubic kilometre each year. Since 1961, their ice masses have lost more than a quarter of their volumes and by 2050 another quarter will be lost. This has made Russian investors, both state and private, halt the multi-billion cash flows for the construction of the Rogun dam in Tajikistan and a series of dams on the Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan in view of pending water shortages from the mountain ranges.

The Rogun dam’s hydropower plant could produce up to 13 billion kilowatt hours per annum, and an additional 9 billion delivered by the Naryn string of stations. This would not only mean relief for the persistent power shortages in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but also enable both countries to export electricity, in particular to China but also through the Central Asia South Asia (CASA-1000) transmission line linking the resources to Pakistan and India across Afghanistan.

In all: a complex of difficulties leaving the Aral Sea on the dry end of the line…