Professor Peter Zavyalov the Deputy Director of the Russian Institute of Oceanography, and Professor Philip Micklin from the Western Michigan University, discuss the catastrophic drying up of the Aral Sea. Reasons for the disappearance of water, the geopolitical environment, human security issues and climate change factors are explored in this program.
The catastrophic destruction of the Aral Sea began in Soviet times, when massive irrigation schemes were started in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; using water diverted from two main rivers which flow into the sea. Such water has now been used for generations. Human Security issues therefore have to balance with wider environmental concerns. In 2005, The World Bank financed the construction of a dam to protect the Northern Aral Sea, a project that has been very successful. Meanwhile extremely high rates of infant mortality and diseases have been recorded. One major health concern is salt dust storms.
Professor Zavyalov: The Aral Sea has been desiccating steadily, starting from 1960. And by now, as you correctly pointed out, it lost more than 90% of its volume. The main reason was or is believed to have been anthropogenic, which means anthropogenic diversions of water from the rivers which are: Amu Darya River and Syr Darya River.What happened to the Aral Sea?
But we believe now that along with the anthropogenic causes, there were also some natural climate change impacts associated with warming and drying of the local climate.
Does that mean that if the climate change factors were to reverse, there is a chance that the sea may slightly recover?
Professor Micklin: I agree that the primary cause of the desiccation, the drying of the Aral Sea since 1960 has been human actions: the removal of water irrigation, both in the basin of the Syr Darya and the basin of the Amu Darya.
Could the Aral Sea be brought back to life?
Professor Micklin: Yes, for example, if tomorrow is stopped 70% or 80% of the irrigation in the Central Asia, in the basin of the Aral Sea, you could bring the sea back. It would take a number of decades, but it is possible.
So, it can be brought back. The problem is that irrigated agriculture is still the basis of the economy in Uzbekistan, which takes most of the water, Turkmenistan, which takes second most and it is very important in the other new states of Central Asia.
So, they couldn’t do it overnight at all. It would take decades to change the economy to reduce the water use.
How was the damn constructed to help the northern Aral Sea? Which international bodies stepped in and made this happen?
Professor Micklin: After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, you had the new independent states of Central Asia. The World Bank became deeply involved and they drew an ambitious and complicated plan along with the basin governments. And then they started implementing this plan.
One part of it was to try and to partially rehabilitate the Smaller Aral Sea in the north. And naturally, at the end of the 1980’es the North Aral Sea separated from the Southern Aral Sea. So, it was a matter of simply building a dyke and putting a damn to release water into it, so they could control the level.
And they did that over about a three-year period, 2002-2005 at a cost of about $85 million. And the project so far has been very successful. And in fact, the
Government of Kazakhstan is planning the second stage of it, to increase the area of the Smaller Aral Sea.
There are two competing plans, I won’t go into them. But the Government is currently very serious about proceeding with the second stage of the project.
Is it true that the area suffers from very high infant mortality?
Professor Micklin: I'm not an expert in medicine and human health, but, yes, the area around the Aral Sea in the south, Karakalpakstan had very high rates of infant mortality. And I guess that was also true in the Aralsk oblast – the region around the town of Aralsk in the north.
There's been quite a bit of study done on it. I'm not really aware of what has happened to the disease rates in the recent years, but it used to be very-very high. It was the result of a combination of things: poor medical care, poor drinking water and things like that. But there were major efforts by the governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to improve the situation. And there were a number of international projects also that worked on that. But I guess it still does remain a problem.
The other thing I might mention in my list, of course, the chronic bronchitis – one thing that is making that worse are these salt dust storms that arise from the dried bottom. Those are becoming an increasing problem.
So, the world is helping through the World Bank?
Professor Micklin: There are regional organizations and the international fund for the Aral Sea, which is a cooperative body that involves all five nations of the Central Asia. I don’t want to diminish the work they’ve done. They’ve done a lot of good work. And my own view is that the international fund for the Aral Sea and the Interstate Water Management Committee has really done a pretty good job of trying to prevent conflicts over water between the states of Central Asia.