The Future of the Aral Sea

Throughout its desiccation since the 1960s, what used to constitute the Aral Sea was replaced by arid lands crusted with salt, and at an accelerating rate due to positive feedbacks as we saw. Both the abusive practices at the origin of the desiccation and the consequences of it on the landscape and local populations were obvious during this period, and inaction was therefore intentional. Even more so when a threshold was passed in 1990, with the Sea being split into two distinct parts: the North and South Aral. Only then did the community of countries directly concerned by the fate of the Sea officially react to start remedying the problem on a large scale. Yet the problem remained: the promises of those countries, which even created a joint fund to which they promised to allocate 1%of their GDP each year, were not respected even to the least. Unrealized projects and unfounded promises were repeatedly made since the 1980s by the USSR and the successive governments of the region, without anything ever being done due to being short on cash or the simple inability of governments to cooperate diligently.

The first landmark toward the protection of the sea was made at the local level by a governor and local villagers, who managed to improvise an “artisanal” dam made of sand in the mid 1990s, allowing for the sea level in the Little Aral (Northern Part of the split) to stabilize instead of progressively drain its water in the vast plains of the South Aral. This dam though did not withstand time, and had to be repaired if not rebuilt a few times until it was eventually abandoned at the end of 1990s. In addition to the role it played in preserving what was left in the Little Aral from spilling into the evaporating desert, this dam was a first effort in what was going to become a major project financed by the World Bank. Indeed, the World Bank had been closely following the situation without being a real player up to then, when it finally accepted to finance an 85million dollars project initiated and realized by Kazakhstan, to rebuild dozens of miles of canals and build a proper dam at the southern border of the Northern basin. This more up-to-the-task achievement quickly took shape, as canals were improved starting in 2001 and the dam was finished in the summer of 2005. Estimates were, as found in an article in Science dating from February 2005, that ”Within 3 years [after the Kok-Aral Dam is built] , the Small Aral is expected to rise at least 3 meters and cover about 1000 square kilometers of now-dry former seabed, extending its surface by 25%”. The facts were that as early as March 2006, water level in the “Little Aral” had risen from 38.4m to 42m, or a rise of more than 3.6m during the 7 months after the Kok-Aral Dam was built! (Conant 2006) Its surface grew by about a third within a year after the dam was built (New Scientist 2006). The consistent improvement in irrigation canals thanks to new technologies replacing the outdated and rotten infrastructures from Soviet times was a key element in restoring a larger flow in the Syr Darya River, with gains in efficiency as well as a bigger proportion of it now being redirected toward the Little Aral. That represented an increase of about 793,000 cubic meters in water, literally replenishing the local fauna and making the lives of human beings around it so much easier. The flow of the Syr Darya itself doubled pretty quickly, rising to around 800cubic meters per second (or 28,000cubic-ft/sec) (Conant 2006). Spillovers from the Northern sea to the Southern one started occurring around the same period, recreating a viable and regulated environment for certain species of fishes that had not entirely disappeared to flourish, and by the same occasion fishing opportunities for the exuberant locals. The newly available water was a formidable real life experiment in which visible changes in biodiversity occurred at a striking rate: as reeds started appearing along the river banks, flees that were long gone and were an essential food to local fishes reappeared too, and quickly re-established the natural food chain. Asian foxes, wild donkeys and other mammals soon showed up in growing numbers, giving a more lively sight to the recently desert landscapes. The project is not at its end yet, and further improvements will soon come as a result of continued attention paid to water inefficiencies and depolluting the region from pesticides and other sources of soil and air degradation.

Water Management

Here is an abstract of an article from Discover written by Eve Conant which gives a good account of further improvements as perceived by the local population: “The town's chief doctor, Asanbaev, sees other signs of improvement. In the past year, the incidence of anemia among young women has decreased from about 70 to 80 percent to around 50 percent. Like many locals, he thinks better nutrition is the reason. Fish are easier to get now that the sea, once 62 miles away, is just 9 miles distant. "Thanks to the rebuilding of this dam, there are already satellite dishes on our homes, cars in the streets, weddings, a new school," boasts deputy mayor of Aralsk, Gabit Ospanov. Yet he grows quiet when asked about neighboring Uzbekistan, home to the larger portion of the sea, which will reap few of the dam's benefits. "Each government must think of its own people," he seems to recite. "We showed them what to do. Now they can do what they want." ”

Aside from that large project which was the culmination of decades of undedicated efforts among nations concerned, some other propositions have arisen in the past years to help further the improvements that have been occurring. One which caught our attention is to attribute to the Aral Sea the status of “World Heritage Site” from the UNESCO, in order to force a partial restoration of the Southern part of the sea. This partial restoration would be a realistic step toward lessening the human and ecological crisis from which the Aral region has suffered. It would also bring about more sustained international help as well as a push for cooperation between ethnics and local governments to deal with the causes of poor air quality and its consequences on populations (Glantz 2007).

On a less optimistic note, though, the only large scale actions and results up to date were the product of focused policies in which Kazakhstan acted by itself, sometimes with the help of the World Bank. Although countries like Uzbekistan did not have their say and yet approved of the project, they did not contribute to it or showed any sign of upcoming contribution. Kazakhstan saw the share of its Agricultural sector shrink in its now “petrol-enriched” economy from 27% in 1991 to only 5.6% in 2006, while the share in Uzbekistan went from 37% to 26% during the same period (Gapminder 2008). These figures show how Kazakhstan has gained some relative freedom in redistributing the water from the Syr Darya, while Uzbekistan for which cotton growing still represents more than a quarter of the economy has remained more conservative in these matters and does not intend to apply the same quantity of effort in bringing back the South Sea to life as Kazakhstan did with the North Sea. It must be admitted that the South Aral, or Arals since the Southern part is itself separated into two bodies of water, West and East, cannot be rejuvenated to its 1960 level. Hopes must be put on a partial restoration, and the South Sea being primarily on Uzbek territories, the active involvement of Uzbeks is critical to the restoration efforts that would help support the re-birth of the Aral Basin as a whole.