Coping with the Shrinking Aral Sea

On the shores of what was once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are trying different solutions

The Aral Sea as Uzbeks and Kazakhs knew it a generation ago is gone for good. Refilling the sea back to the shoreline of the first half of the 20th century "is unachievable in the foreseeable future," says Taisiya Budnikova, a senior staff scientist from the Kazakhstan Ministry of Education and Science.

In less than 40 years the Aral has shrunk into two salt lakes, known variously as the Big, or South, Aral and the Small, or North, Aral and a new desert called the Aralkum has arisen on 50,000 square kilometers of dried up lake bed.

Two radically different solutions to this environmental nightmare are being tried out by the two countries that share the remnants of the sea. While Kazakhstan is trying to refill part of the sea and partially restore its devastated ecology, Uzbekistan to the south is learning to live without the sea by transforming its bed into a cleaner and greener, or at least less poisonous, place.

Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the Aral has lost three-fourths of its surface area and 90 percent of its volume since the 1960s, when Soviet planners began diverting huge amounts of water to irrigate cotton fields.

ONE SMALL SEA. In the 1960s nearly 60 billion cubic meters of water flowed down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers into the Aral every year. Irrigation projects gradually exploited more and more water until by the mid-1980s most of the river water that once flowed into the lake was being diverted to the cotton fields. The shrunken lake, now lakes, also lose 30 to 35 billion cubic meters a year to evaporation and their salt content is much higher than in the old Aral.

But at least part of the former sea is on the rebound. Last year, Kazakhstan topped off years of planning when it completed work on a dike that prevents water from flowing into the Big Aral, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and channels additional flows into the Small Aral, which is entirely in Kazakh territory. Total costs of the project are estimated at $86 million, two-thirds of it as a loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The dike has already stimulated changes in the ecosystem. The Small Aral has gained almost 900 square kilometers of surface area, to 3,300 square kilometers, and its level has risen by 3 meters, to 42 meters. The water is less saline, shrub vegetation is spreading on the shoreline, and a fishery has been started based on introduced flounder.

The Small Aral's salvation may hasten the decline of the Big Aral, say some Uzbek scientists, who fear the effects of diverting several billion cubic meters of the Syr Darya's water away from the Big Aral. But according to Vadim Sokolov, deputy director of the scientific and information center of the Aral Sea commission set up by the five contiguous Central Asian republics, such a view is based on emotion, not reason. He says the improving conditions in the Small Aral more than offset any harm done to the larger remnant.

MAKING THE NEW DESERT BLOOM. While Kazakhstan is making the Small Aral bigger, Uzbekistan is coming to terms with the loss of most of the Big Aral and trying to stabilize the new desert environment. In a joint German-Uzbek-Kazakh project now in its sixth year, local workers have so far planted 27,000 hectares on the former lake bottom with shrubs, bushes, and fodder plants that do well in the dry, saline conditions, says the project's scientific adviser, Zinovy Novitsky, who has 20 years of experience trying to grow useful plants in the Aralkum desert.

Novitsky and other scientists working on the lake believe the new vegetation will help control erosion. Several of the plant species being tested, such as the black saxaul, have roots that grow parallel to the surface, helping to bind the sandy, saline earth. The stems and leaves above ground can be just as useful because they act as windbreakers, decreasing wind velocity on the surface by 60 percent to 70 percent, the scientist says.

Wind is a major problem on this new desert.

In the Aral region, winds blow about 75 million tons of dust, sand, and salt from the former seabed into the atmosphere every year, most of it falling within a 1,000-kilometer radius.

Blowing salt and dust contribute to cancer, respiratory diseases, intestinal disorders, and infections. The average life expectancy near the lake has dropped to 59.5 years, compared with 64 years for Uzbekistan as a whole, according to a study published for NATO in the 1990s.

There are also fears of contaminated dust blowing from what used to be the Soviet Union's top-secret biological weapons testing ground on Vozrozhdeniye Island. The falling water level in the Big Aral has turned the island into a peninsula shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. There is a possible link between the site and the poor health of many people in the region, says Bakhtiyar Zhollybekov, a professor of soil science at the Nukus branch of the Tashkent Agrarian University.

The newly planted vegetation also captures rain and snow that are crucial in the drought-affected Aral region, where current annual precipitation averages only about 75 millimeters.

According to Novitsky, 250,000 to 300,000 hectares will be planted over the next 10 years. In five or six years the shrubs will begin producing seeds that will be spread by the wind.

The project was started in 2000 by GTZ, a sustainable development company owned by the German government. The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development contributed to the project, says project leader Hans Wilps of GTZ.

Many of the 80 or so workers on the planting project live in a camp 41 kilometers "out to sea" from the old shoreline. They earn $70 to $80 a month, slightly more than the official Uzbek poverty line of $60 per person per month. Still, these earnings are comparatively high in a region that has suffered from economic collapse due to the shrinkage of the sea and where monthly earnings of $15 or $20 are not uncommon.

Ruslan Bekmurzaev, 21, works 22 days each month on the lake bed and spends the rest of the month at his home with his parents, sister, and two brothers in a village in the Moynaq district of Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Republic. After three years on the job, he says, he's developed eye problems from the blowing sand, but he isn't planning to leave.

"I live near the Aral and I must work here,” he says.

A ROUGH ROAD TO SUSTAINABLE COTTON FARMING. In Uzbekistan, cotton is king: the crop is the poor nation's major source of income. But this profitable industry relies on starving the Aral of the river water it needs to dilute the saline deserts and stop the polluted dust storms that sweep the region. Uzbek scientists have already developed a cotton variety that needs little or no irrigation, but the state discourages farmers from growing it.

The variety, known as Aral 1, has roots that reach as deep as two meters into the soil in search of moisture, says Bakhtiyar Zhollybekov, who bred the variety in the 1980s with his brother, Mukhamadiyar, and botanist Kalbay Myrzambetov.

Aral 1 can grow on rainwater and underground water alone, Bakhtiyar Zhollybekov says.

According to Mukhamadiyar Zhollybekov, during a two-year trial he had to irrigate a 15-hectare test plot only once, during a spell of extremely hot weather.

But Aral 1 has two serious drawbacks: a lower yield than irrigated varieties and the rough texture of its fibers. For these reasons the variety was removed from the State Register of Crops Recommended for Sowing in Uzbekistan in 2003, says Abdujalil Narimanov, an official from the state commission on crop testing.

Similar problems led to all other cotton varieties developed in Karakalpakstan being removed from the register, according to Uzakbay Ismailov, a professor of agriculture and deputy director of the Nukus branch of Tashkent Agrarian University.

As a result, only a handful of Aral 1 proponents are still growing the variety. Most cotton farmers have no choice but to plant varieties listed in the crop register, because the state, their major or only buyer, pays only for listed varieties. Likewise, the state gives farmers growing listed varieties financial credits and fertilizer, Ismailov says.

Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton producers with an annual crop of some 3.5 million tons of raw cotton, is the second largest cotton exporter after the United States. The country exports about 900,000 tons of cotton fiber annually, generating more than $1 billion, equivalent to more than a third of national budget revenue.

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