Aral Sea - a cause for hope?

Does the Aral Sea, the biggest environmental disaster of the 90s, offer us cause for hope? Paul Miles reports, and sees parallels with a bigger man-made disaster – climate change

It was often called ‘the worst man-made ecological disaster on the planet.’ The shrinking of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, resulted in the surreal image of rusting ships stranded on what had become an inhospitable, poisonous desert.

The cause was Soviet irrigation schemes that diverted water from two major rivers, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, to irrigate land, mostly for cotton. Between 1960 and 2004, the sea shrank by 70%. Water levels dropped by 20m and ports, such as Aralsk in Kazakhstan, became stranded 100km from shore. Fisheries collapsed, salinity and pollution levels rose, dust and salt storms affected people’s health and even the climate changed, with hotter, drier summers. It was indeed a disaster. The sea split into separate lakes, the smaller Northern Aral Sea (NAS) and the larger, Lower Aral Sea (LAS). Some predicted that it would disappear altogether. The only boom was in the tourist industry. Foreigners, many of them ‘experts’ would visit to witness the disaster first-hand. The local population used to joke that if each of them had brought a bucket of water, the sea could have been refilled.

Now, with no need for buckets, the Northern Aral Sea at least is recovering with some remarkable results. In 2004, the fish catch was just 52 tons, mostly salt- tolerant flounder. In 2007, the catch was 2,000 tons including many of the original freshwater species, such as sturgeon and pike perch.

For the first time in many years, fisheries in the port of Aralsk are functioning again and fish is being exported to Georgia and Russia. The sea has crept back and is now just 25km away from the harbour. Residents are hopeful that, one day, fi shing boats will bob by the docks once more and seagulls will mew overhead, just like the scenes in flaking murals inside the town hall.

‘Even the climate is changing for the better. It’s true,’ says Aralsk’s mayor, Nazhmedin Musabaev. ‘In April, May and June we now have rain! There is more grass for livestock. Summers are a little cooler. Dust storms are fewer… in a few years, I hope we will be sitting on the harbourside beside the water and enjoying ourselves.’

Two countries border the Aral Sea – Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. Uzbekistan continues to drain much of the Amu Darya river for irrigation
and is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world. There are plans to drill for oil in the dry seabed desert of the LAS. But Kazakhstan has shown how, with determination, a human-made environmental disaster can be reversed.

How did it happen? The words ‘dam’ and ‘World Bank’ are like red rags to a bull for many environmentalists. World Bank funded dams such as Nam Theun 2 in Laos, where 70,000 people will have to be relocated, which provoked the wrath of NGOs such as International Rivers Network.

Yet it was a World Bank funded dam that has played a major part in repairing the damage to the Aral Sea. After Kazakh attempts in the late 90s proved that a dam to stop the remaining puddle of the NAS draining away completely, could be successful, Kazakhstan approached the World Bank for funds. In 2001, a US$86m project was approved for infrastructure developments: a 13km dam (or, as they call it, perhaps less controversially, on the World Bank website, a dyke) that was completed in 2005 and importantly, improved ‘hydraulic structures’ along the Syr Darya river that empties into the NAS.

One of the main problems with the use of the river for irrigation was not the amount of water diverted to crops but the much greater amounts that were wasted. In winter and spring, millions of cubic metres of water, unable to pass through the irrigation system, caused fl oods and then evaporated. New and improved hydraulic structures were completed at the end of last year.

The increased river capacity has helped fill the NAS. The dam’s full capacity was reached in 2006 and 2007 with estimated inflow into the NAS during both years about seven billion cubic metres. The surface area of the water reached about 3,300km², 50 per cent more than its lowest level. The next stage of the project, due to start in 2010, will involve the construction of another dam, nearer to Aralsk, to create a two-tier NAS. The sea will lap at the port once more.

Does this story offer us hope? Could humanity work together to reverse what is a far more serious man-made ecological disaster, namely, climate change? ‘A combination of technical and institutional interventions in a holistic manner can solve most problems that are either caused by nature or by humans when they are
underpinned by good analytical work,’ says Joop Stoutjesdijk, project manager, optimistically. ‘It also requires commitment from governments.’ It will also require far more than just $86million. Fighting climate change should be how we spend our way out of recession.

Sadly, the story of the Aral Sea is like that of a tricky operation to separate conjoined twins. Although the process of saving the NAS has not caused the much larger LAS to suffer any more than it already was, the chance of the LAS ever recovering is virtually zero. The only hope would be if no water were taken from the Amu Darya for irrigation in Uzbekistan, which is extremely unlikely given the country’s dependence on cotton and its fast population growth, says Moscow-based Sergei Roy, author of Solo on the Aral.

So while we give thanks for the recovery of the smallest twin, the other one is left to die. Let’s hope humanity’s response to tackling climate change is more successful.

Paul Miles is a freelance photojournalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009

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