Will the Aral Sea ever come back?

  • 14/11/1995

Will the Aral Sea ever come back? IN SEPETEMBER 1995, the presidents of the five republics which constitute the watershed of the Aral Sea - Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan met in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, the autonomous republic of Uzbekistan (the worst affected by the tragedy). This was the fourth meeting of the presidents within three years. The objective - to deal with the Aral Sea crisis and effectively try and contain the terrible after-effects of this gigantic ecological disaster. The meeting was preceded by an international conference where the presidents called upon the international community to help them save the Aral Sea. A resolution was taken up to formulate a regional treaty to share the waters of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea. Since these states were until recently part of the former Soviet Union, non-governmental oTganisations have rarely been involved in ecological work. But Significantly, for the first time, on paper at least, the official Nukus Declaration stated government intent to provide space for NGOS to be involved in the revival of the Aral Sea.

The conference laid bare all the elements of the crisis - the need for humanitarian aid, the need for plans to move towards humanitarian aid, to move towards "sustainable development" and ecological restoration. But the one question uppermost in the minds of concerned environmentalists - Will the Aral Sea ever recover its former glory? - remained unanswered!
The genesis The quest for self-sufficiency is indisputably a lofty goal, a meaningful aspiration, especially when it seeks to change the destiny of a land and its teeming millions. But sometimes when dreams run contrary to reason, failing it) take cognizance of ground realities and existing truths, the outcome can be devastating. The Aral Sea crisis is one such disaster. A colossal blunder borne of short-sighted planning triggered by nothing but an all-consurning concern for self-sufficiency. Ever since Lenin had decreed in 1919 that USSR Should become self-sufficient in cotton, the country"s central planners concentrated on cotton production. A process that set into motion a series of chain reactions leading to a calamitous, culde-sac gateway to eventual catastrophe.

The future as perceived by the Soviet planners, lay in the development of ambitious irrigation schemes that would milk the rivers to quench the growing, almost insatiable demands of cotton production. And if at the end of it all a sea was to be The mighty Aral Sea: paying the dues of dreams gom awry sacrificed, what of it? So the Aral Sea was made to pay for I consequences of mega planning that paid no heed to"ecolo) cal considerations.

One of the most ancient lakes on earth, the Aral Sea Which is bounded by three deserts and shared by the five newly independent republics of Central Asia, bad been ussR"s Second largest inland waterbody and the world"s fourth largest intand sea. Fed mainly by two rivers - Amu Darya and Syr Darya A which collect the runoffs and glacier melts from the Pamir arki Two Shan mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgy7stan - the.A had an average depth of 16 metres and a maximum depth of 68 metres with a salt content of I per cent only. It had abu4 dant fish resources and a busy shipping trade extending from its northern port of Aralsk in Kazakhstan to the river ports of Amu Darya, some as remote as Tajikistan. But all this was about to change. The Aral Sea and the adjoining tract of Central Asia were Soon to feel the effects of these changes.

More than three-quarters of the territory in Central Asia is desert lowland, part of a closed basin with no open sea or ocean outlet. Its hydrological cycle is strongly affected by the prevalent climatic features. There is very, little rainfall in the lowland land plains as all the monsoon-bearing winds from the Indian ocean to the south are blocked by the high Himalayan Peaks.The high temperatures, low humidity and high solar Tradition combine to create very high evaporation rates.

The fertile irrigated land between the two rivers is an Ancient area of human settlement and has a history of approxImately 3500 years. Sophisticated water distribution systems it ma&tion here, especially in the regions of and and Fergana. Archaelogical research has w vraerns that irrigated millions of hectares. mom o( water was locally managed by village obach allocated and controlled water use and also enforced waterlaws. According to tradition, users of irrigation water took partin the construction and maintenance of irrigation network.

When Russians conquered the Khanates of Turkestan (now,central Asa) in the late 19th century, they introduced " wduvAogies aml began large-scale cotton cultivation 16 dhe consolidation of Soviet power in the "20s, extensively developed in suitable areas. Sovictisation led to a diminished appreciation by the inhabitants of the precious character of its water resources.

As recently as the late"50s, most surface water for irrigation came from smaller streams and only about 15-17 per cent of the Amu and Syr Darya flows were used for irrigation. Because of the low level of irrigation, the volume of the Aral Sea basin was more or less in equilibrium, the evaporation from the surface being counterbalanced by the river inflow, groundwater aquifers and rainfall. The volume of water fluctuated by only 100- 150 cu krn and the surface area by 4000 sq km.
Sponging of a sea
When the decision to divert the waters of the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, was implemented, the fate of the once mighty Aral Sea and the inhabitants of the region was sadly, and irrevocably sealed. These diverted waters were to irrigate the ancient steppes (grasslands) of Central Asia which had traditionally supported shepherds and nomads. But the Soviet planners were fully aware that this diversion would eventually starve the Aral Sea and compel it to shrink. They therefore had a contingency plan up their sleeves - the waters of the Siberian rivers flowing into the Central Asian region would be diverted to the Aral Sea to bolster the loss of Amu Darya and Syr Darya river flow. However, while the Central Asian irrigation plan went on stream, the plan to divert the Siberian rivers encountered stiff opposition from several ecologically concerned Soviet scientists. Struck down by the sheer vehemence of such over- whelming protest, the planners backed off leaving the poor Aral Sea to face the brunt of a decision that was to recoil most tragically on its perpetrator and victims alike.

The excessive use of water for irrigation of cotton and rice fields upstream had its inevitable consequences - the sea level began to decline. In fact the total volumeofwaterin theAralSea is nowa quarterofivitatitused to be while the salt concentration has increased. Meanwhile the irrigation schemes continue to affect the water flow of all the rivers; it has sponged away more than 90 per cent of the natural flow of water from the Tian Shan (formerly known as Tien Shan) mountains. Riverflow in the lower course of the Syr Darya came down to zero in the late "70s and the Amu Darya flow has reduced to just 5 cu kno of water a year. In some dry years in the "80s no water flowed into the Aral Sea at all. Once coastal towns like Muynak and Aralsk now have very little water, As a result of this water crisis, the sea level which had remained almost constant in the two centuries prior to 1960 at about 53 metres has fallen by more than 12 metres and the surface area has nearly halved. The seashore has receded dramatically along its shallow eastern bank, in some places, more than 120 kin away. The three worst affected areas as a result of this ecological change are the province of Dashkovuz in Turkmenistan, the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan and the province of Kzyl Orda in Kazakhstan. Almost 3 million people living in the regions adjoining the Sea, and dependent on the quality of natural resources for their survival and livelihood, now face a serious crisis because of the ensuing destruction and toxification.

According to a World Bank official, ifpresent trends continue, the Aral Sea will most probably disappear in 20 years time. The exposed sea bed which covers an area of 33,000 sq krn is today like a vast sandy desert being eroded by strong winds, everyday. On this clesertified former seabed, a white alkaline soil has developed. It is estimated that 200,000 tonnes of toxic salt and sand are carried away every 24 hours and deposited over a wide area, posing a serious threat to the plants and soils in the agricultural areas of the basin.

Inevitably, a catastrophe of such major dimensions is bound to throw established patterns of life and its environment out of gear. For instance, agriculture, the mainstay of the region"s economy has been hit badly by the sudden change in climate. Scientists believe that the rainfall patterns in the mountainous regions of Central Asia may be altered by the destruction of the Sea. Winters have in any case become colder and summers hotter as average seasonal temperatures have shot up by almost 20c. As a barrier against cold winds from the north and hot winds from the south, the Aral Sea originally had a substantially moderating function in the regional climate, serving as a catalyst for formation of clouds due to the masses of water vapour rising from its surface. This moisture replenished the ice and snow of distant mountains, completing the region"s water cycle. The microclimate of this region has become much more continental - hotter summers, cooler winters, less rainfall and lower humidity- These climatic trends have reduced the growing season, as a result of which cotton cultivation is becoming increasingly risky and is being replaced by rice paddies.

Biodiversity ... on the verge of extinction
One-sixth the area of USSR, yet boasting of one half its biodiversity, the Aral Sea basin had developed a wealth of biodiversity comparable to that of Africa! But today, at stake are the lives of more than 500 species of birds, 200 species of mammals, 100 species of fish and tens of thousands of insects and other invertebrates in Central Asia. The drying of the Aral Sea, its riverine deltas and surrounding wetlands has resulted in vast changes in the habitat for plant and animal life. The lakes and bogs which earlier covered an area of 300,000 ha in the western and central areas of the Amu Darya delta have been replaced by thick salt marshes and salt flats. Reeling under the impact of this destruction are the region"s wealth of wildlife, its flora and fauna related to the water habitats. Among the endangered species are the Saigak antelope, the Asian wild burro and several others. It is estimated that of the original 179 animal species of the riverine deltas, only 38 remain. The watery ma7.e of the riverine deltas once hosted large populations of boar, deer, muskrat and egret, which have now all but disappeared. Numerous species in the Aral Sea have already become extinct. The high salt concentration of the sea has become too much for the fish and other flora and fauna to survive. All the commercial 20 species of fish that were once harvested from the Aral Sea have disappeared. The dry seabed and deltas are now being taken over by rodents and other desert species known to be disease carriers.

Desertification has replaced large areas of water-retaining black saxual trees, water-fringing tugay forests and reeds with salt and drought-resistant plants. The tugay forests consisting of dense groves of water-loving plants have been refuge to a wide variety of flora and fauna. But the extent of these forests has been reduced to 10 per cent of what it was in the early part of this century.

Cry, the beloved country!
When the beneficiaries of the irrigation schemes have now begun to feel the bite of ecological changes, how weighed down and desecrated would the land itself feel as the sudden, cruel winds of change strip it so completely of its natural resources? Turkmenistan, the hottest and driest of the Central Asian states, was once dominated by a pastoral culture like other Central Asian states. Its land use was converted to irrigated agriculture with the extension of the Kara-Kum canal. The population has increased and there has been a growing imbalance between the native skills of the people and the skills of irrigated agriculture required to maintain the productive capacity of the land. Many irrigated lands close to Tedzhen on which cotton was grown in the 1980s, now lie totally abandoned. Kazakhstan, the eight largest country in the world with an area of 270 mha (almost equal to India) is suffering from serious forms of land degradation. Overuse has resulted in the loss of nearly 30 per cent of humus content of most agricultural lands. A substantial amount of land has also been conta minated by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons Waterlogging, salinisation, poisoning by pesticide are only some of the effects unleashed by human thoughtlessness on this unsuspecting land.

Poor drainage has also caused the water table to rise in many areas. The declining flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers has meant that nearly all the salts that the river waters once washed away from the fields and deposite in the Aral Sea are being deposited in the basin itself, including the precious irrigated lands. The ecological disaster had evidently turned a vicious, full circle. The very crop for which the entire scheme was begun is today adversely affected by the scheme.

Part of the problem of the Aral basin arises out of the extremely inefficient use of irrigation water. While cotton plants need only 8,000- 10,000 cubic metres (cu in) of water per hectare, average water withdrawal per hectare was as high as 18,700 cu in / ha at one time. This overuse of irrigatiall water has led to heavy salinisation of croplands which nunica that all new fields have to be heavily washed to leach out dif salts and almost all irrigated lands have to be periodically leached. But poor drainage makes the leaching process less effective and wastes further quantities of water. Once known" as the"whitegold", cotton todayparadoxically enough, symbolize the ecological woes of the country.

It is not just water that was over-liberally used on the cotton farms of Central Asia. These fields were also indis criminately daused with poisonous chemicals. Huge quanti- ties bertiocides and pesticides were used to combat pests and diseases whiich had acquired immunity due to monocultural Bv the end of 1980, more than 3 cu.km. of drainage cmatxnanated with agricultural chemicals from Uzbek pirlixern fwIds was being annually dumped into the Amu Goaltv affet:ting the downstream water users and the Hes" quantities of fertilisers were used to provide so the exhausted and overwashed soils and defoliants said ersnivuvelv to ease mechanical harvesting of cotton wunnit the leaves. The effects of these chemical overdoses on women and children who continue to manually harvest muchof &t cotton crop is yet to be established.

Water- culprit
Water pollution is the main cause of the high incidence of Typhoid,hepatitis and other intestinal infections. Not an Unexpected development at all, considering that in manyareas Sewage is discharged into natural or artificial water bodies. drinking water sources have been poisoned by pesticides excess salts, agricultural runoffs and pr waser Worse, only 2.3 per cent of settlements in the mt kral region have centralised water supply, leaving man of the people to depend on contaminated wells or meals. These highly polluted waters contain phenols, nitrogen compounds, pesticides, organic matter and sulphates up to 10 times the maximum permissible concentration by USSR standards. Local concentration in small water bodies and drainage channels are often much higher, Mineral content of drainage from fields is often as high as 15 gin / hire. In fact, over half of the water centrally supplied by the government to rural areas in the four provinces of Uzbekistan, does not meet the government"s own bacteriological and chemical standards!

A question of survival now
With the closure of fishing and shipping industries, all related economic activities too have collapsed. Total job losses in the fisheries sector of the Aral zone are estimated at a staggering 60,000 since 1950. An idea of the acute devastation that has engulfed this region can be obtained by the picture that the former fishing town of Muynak which lay on the shores of the Aral Sea, presents today. Its population has declined from 45,000 in 1960 to 27,000 in 1994 (see box on Muynak). Other nearby towns and villages too have had to watch in mute horror, the devastation of their economics with no prospect of new industries or any other alternatives coming in.

The highest level of unemployment in Kazakhstan is in the Aral Sea region and amounts to approximately 17.5 per cent. Women have been specially affected. Almost half of them are presently unemployed. Youth unemployment has reached new highs. Alcoholism, crime and other aberrative trends have begun to destroy the traditional lifestyle of the region. Emigration appears the only answer for many people.

Says an UNEP report, "There is hardly any other region on the planet, except perhaps Chernobyl, where a profound environmental crisis has affectedsuch largeareas, and the lives of so manypeople." Viewed from a short-term perspective, the bargain of sacrificing the Aral Sea for cotton production may have looked profitable, but its long-term costs are only now beginning to be paid by the people of Central Asia.

Rearing its ugly head .... disease and health problems
Although the relationship between environmental degradation and various illnesses in the region have yet to be conclusively proven, the links are undeniable. Poor nutrition, unsafe drinking water, lack of hygiene and health care are indisputably major contributory factors in the increasingly failing health of a tragically afflicted people.

The damaging effect of the salt, dust and poison-laden air from the exposed sea bed on health and living conditions can no longer be denied. People living along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya are further affected by heavy pesticide residues in their drinking water. The abnormally high levels of infant mortality and morbidity in the Aral region are clear evidence of dangerously poor health conditions. As a UNDP publication puts it, "Illness rates are appalling, and infant mortality rates are the highest.." Today anaernia, tuberculosis and cancers are rife in the region, occuring at levels far higher than elsewhere in Central Asia. Many children are born with defects.

Poor quality drinking water is linked to growth in serious diseases like hepatitis, typhoid, throat cancer, liver ailments, kidney failure, gallstones and birth defects along with high mortality whose rates in the Aral Sea area of Uzbekistan increased by 20 per cent from 1980 to 1989 and have consistently been the highest in the republic. The Aral Sea region suffers the highest infant mortality rates in the former Soviet Union: reported figures in the late 1980s were as high as 60 in Karkalpakstan and 75 in Dashkhovuz province in Turkmenistan as compared to the USSR-wide average of 25. These negative changes in the health situation have become particularly noticeable in the last 10 years.

Ninety per cent women of Karakalpakstan have been particularty hard-hit by disease, specialty anaernia, contributing to both maternal mortality and the ill-health of newborns. Maternal mortality in the region - estimated at 120 per 100,000 live births in Karakalpakstan - is also higher than the average in the country while nutritional deficiency problems are widespread. This is partly because important foods are no longer locally produced and are therefore not available or are too expensive because land traditionally devoted to fruit and vegetables has been turned over to cotton.

Diseases of the respiratory tract have been attributed to decreasing humidity levels, dust storms from the poisoned seabed and contact with pesticide and defoliant residues. "Our people are dying like flies," claims Oral Ataniyazova, a Nukusbased gynaecologist and obstetrician, who now runs a NGO (See Interview on page 54). She holds the high levels of heavy metals, salts and toxic substances like organochlori4c pesticides in drinking water and vegetables largely responsible for this depressing state of health. In a paper presented at September Nukus conference, Ataniyazova presented data on women"s health based on a record of all births C Muynak during 1990-91. Her study revealed that the area is marked by severe reproductive problems of anaemia haemorrhaging during the birth process, late deliveries, and a peculiar newborn pathology where the infant birth weight is 4.5 kg or more.

Ataniyazova does not agree with the view that anaemia due t9 a diet deficient in iron. Since Karakalpakstan was designated by the USSR health ministry as an area deficient in iodine adequate supplements of iron, vitamins and iodine had bem made available to all pregnant women. Moreover, the drinking water in any case contains iron. Diet, according to her, had not changed in more than 10 years and yet anaemia rose from 17 per cent in 1982 to 89 per cent in 1992 according to statistics provided by the Karakalpaki government.

Ataniyazova argues that the greater frequency of "severe anaemia" in Muynak shows that environmental condition there may be a factor, and this could be because of the rise in pollution with trace metals. A recent study from Bulgaria has also shown that anaernia was.associated with higher lead sure of women living in the vicinity of smelters. In even 75 per cent of infants and over 80 per cent of found to be anaemic. The high proportion of very large babies in and the longer gestation period, in Ataniyazova"s point is not a healthy sign. This may reflect a in endocrine function. Her research suggests that mother"s thyroid function can be compromised chronic exposure to high levels a mixture of pollutants. S. concludes, "the idea that big babies are better may riot be valid in an area of extreme and unrelenting pollution."

Not everybody in the medical profession is, however, convince that these complications arise from environmental pollution. A cautios tious official Of WHO, its execul director for health and envir ment, W Kreisel, told the Nuku conference that while, "for solf of these diseases, an environ mental etiology is clear ---for others, direct environmental causation may be suspected or lei direct environment-health links assumed." Nevertheless, he agree that there is an urgent need to improve the quality and availability of information on evi ronment wind health in the region.

Notwithstandihg all the health afflictions set loose by this crisis ,"The ecological disaster that has occured in the Aral Sea region,"according to Ataniyazova, "provides a tragic but unique oppertunity to observe the human capability to reproduce under extreme circumstances."

Managing- key
It is indeed an irony of their lives that even as they have Welcome independent and sovereign republics, the people of Central Asia have to face up to the acute reality of their existence Wiff resource base which they share with each other & can only be managed properly on an integrated oleo the Central Asian republics establish economic pI mechanisms for effective use and sharing of In sesources, their ecological and economic condition We moo a deeper and deeper crisis. It is to the credit membership of these states that they have moved fast pda* this fact and have set up several intergovernmental stra Mres to coordinate all efforts. "Just as we maiwai in recent years, we can easily see water wars in the future," said ambassador Bo Kjellen of Sweden who has been deeply involved with the negotiations on the UN desertification convention.

The governments of the Aral basin are confronted by two significant challenges. One, reaching a lasting consensus on the allocation of the scarce life-giving water in a region with rapidly growing needs, and two, finding a strategy for each country to ameliorate the environmental consequences of past unsustainable policies.

Co-operation among the five states is critical for the management of the Aral basin. Water-rich Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan contain the sources of Amu Darya and Syr Darya (together with Afghanistan across a short stretch of the border), while Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan share the lower reaches. The Aral Sea itself is shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Water storage for power generation and deterioration of water quality in the upper reaches have severe consequences for agriculture, industry and human needs in the lower reaches. During the days of the Soviet Union, several matters were much easier. For example, Kyrgyzstan would release water from its Toktogul reservoir in summer for similar situation exists with the hydroelectric reservoirs in Tajikistan.

A 1992 agreement acknowledges the need for equitable use of water resources and the mutual responsibility of the five nations for rational utilisation and protection. It is widely recognised that a functioning legal system is necessary for the effective management of natural resources, but adaptation of laws from the Soviet system to the new cultural and political climate of the region is a difficult, complex and time-consuming task.

The land question
Given the experience of India and other countries, it is possible to argue that sustainable development is not possible without sustainable land-use. The Aral basin is not the only dryland region of the world which has suffered acutely from the conversion of grasslands and nomadic lifestyles to irrigated agriculture and settled cultures.

Take Uzbekistan"s land-use statistics. Of the total 44.46 million hectares of land Uzbekistan, 61 per cent is used for agric tural production. Of the latter, only 12.26 per Salinisation: cent is irrigated agricultural land, on which considerable attention was focussed in Nukus. Sadly, hardly any attention is being paid to the 83.33 per cent of this agricultural land which is used as hayfields and pastures. Already, the pasture 14nds of the region are in a highly degraded state according to a World Bank paper.

Erosion is taking place at an alarmingly high level in the Southern Kazakhstan steppe and in mountain valleys as overgrazing has left the soil compacted and degraded the vegetal cover. Further, the severity of degradation in most of the and near water sources occurs due to the accumulation of animals. These lands then get heavily eroded by wind and water.

It is obvious that the tiny irrigated lands and their efficient use can only be a part of the solution. As the region"s population grows - and it is growing quite rapidly - more food will be needed and since the region is very dry, more water will be needed to farm the lands. Thus, 40 years later, all the water saved through efficient water management will once again be harnessed to meet basic needs.

The question that many environmentalists in the Thar desert of India have raised - should the irrigation waters from the Himalayan mountains be used to convert grasslands to irrigated farmlands or should they be used to strengthen the original land-use of pastoralism by irrigating grasslands (which requires very little water) and stablising and enhancing taking its toH of life, land and industry animal care activities - is a question that is equally relevant Central Asia. But these are perspectives that will not emergency from Western ecological consultants who give advice to World Bank since these viewpoints as a whole are too alien as far as they are concerned. These are issues that must organise cally emerge from the people of Central Asia themselves if the wish to acquire any strength or roots.

Closely related to the question of land-use is the issue 0f traditional knowledge. Neither the governments not emergency have accorded any attention to this point. This is an ancient region which once had highly developed and independent CA tures. Those cultures must have developed a lot of knowledge about their natural resources and management technique Today, that knowledge needs to be carefully brought to fore as it can provide numerous answers to the difficult issue of sustainable land-use. It is indeed strange that even when independent nations turn to their traditions, tracing their ecological roots rarely receives much priority.

The third and most important issue for Central Asians - who gave the world the concept of the mohalla (urban commi. nity) - is the recreation of a strong civil society, a feature totally destroyed by the Soviet rule. No matter how massive the invest ments to improve the living standards of the people or restore the ecology, unless local communities and citizens" groups are Once again empowered and supported to participate in and determine natural resource management, there can be no guarentee that future state decisions will not rock the boat again Creeping environmental problems will be noticed as and acted upon only if local democracy and transparency were to prevad.

To begin nationhood with such a heavy burden of ecological destitution is not an enviable situation. India got rid of the British newtv 50 years ago but much of the ecological and cul- dawaction that the colonisers had wrought upon India to be reversed. Besides, India did not have a disaster of such horrendous proportions. The Central Asians indeed, face a formidable if not daunting task ahead.

The World Bank is very clear in its mind that reforms Together with effective regulatory mechani -sms are critical for Nowmal mource management. In a paper presented at Obho an ip , ice, Milka Kirova of the Aral Basin Unit of hiloW stated, "In the Aral Sea region, the problems dffam and sustainable use of land and water will have 10mgypeacbed by budding incentives, regulating undesirable and changing institutions." The main focus of me developed by the World Bank, UNDP the assistance of the five Central Asian states, and the irrigation reforms is a key element of that the Bank is pushing. Most farming was and collective farms. Individual farming was sanaH household plots. Unfortunately, the of the five Central Asian nations do not allow of land- The best alternative then, according defined, secure and freely-transferable long-term rights. At present a number of restrictions on and-use apply, creating insecurity about land tenure, which prevents peasants from making appropriate investimate in the land.

Apart from market reforms, the second key agenda that The UNDP at World Bank, international NGOs and the local NGOs pushed at the %ukus conference was people"s participa Tion. To participatory mechanisms, the Bank PW support to existing social scientist-NGO network to establish a network of local managers with sufficient capacity in participatory nasiagement. But not everyone is convinced is were keen to promote NGos and so participate in the management of natural NGOs present at the Nukus conference bas been dragging its feet on a number of Am are needed to promote the growth of the Aral basin countries. Several Central Asian s in legal terms like any commercial no separate legal registration and are not as a non-profit entity. And without regis camiot even open a bank account. Yet the NGO sector is a growing. Scientists like Oral Ataniyazova maintain they were able to do more as NGOS while ministering to the people in theregion, but others admit they have had to tread carefully so as not annoy the powers that be.

The World Bank also wants water charges to be introduced together with improvements in water management, irrigation and drainage systems. As the Bank points out, "It is impossible to sustain agricultural production without irrigation in the Aral Sea basin. Therefore, it is extremely important to create incentives for efficient use of irrigation water since agriculture is the major water consumer in the region and the cause of pollution in the middle and lower reaches of the rivers."

Notwithstanding all the parameters and conditions laid down by various bodies, the fact remains that there appears to be a lack of desire "to iave the Aral Sea itself, a fact that is evident in the emerging structure of the Aral Sea programme. A UNDP publication lists 8 components of the programme: new water legislation; water and environment monitoring; water and waste treatment and water management which will increase water flow; ecosystem restoration in the Aral seabed and riverine deltas; improvement of drinking water quality; improvement of upper watersheds; automatic river regulations systems and a development of regional institutions for basin ecosystem management None of these components add up to a clear and precise picture of what the Aral Sea will be like in the years to come. These efforts may improve living standards and agriculture in the region but what will they mean for the Aral Sea?

Finally, there is a lesson worldwide for all those concerned about the environment. And that is of commodity prices. The former Soviet Union imposed commodity production on the region but never prepared to pay the full price, including the ecological costs of that production. Not surprisingly, the disaster that crept up on them, was slow, unseen and unheard of,in the corridors of power. It is a lesson for all nations to learn from in this age of globalisation. As a Dutch ecologist present in Will my Aral Sea ever be the Nukus pointed out privately, the crisis in Central Asia is so visible and stark only because we are dealing the unique situation of a closed basin. "If the North Sea was not an open sea, then all the poisons we have dumped in that sea would have created a very similar problem for the Dutch," he argued. And rightly so, as this would apply to numerous other countries too. All economic systems must learn to pay the ecological costs of their production and consumption. It is clear that the Soviet leaders just wanted to wear their cotton shirts far too cheaply. In the process, the Central Asians lost their shirts.

Can the Aral Sea be saved?
When the Aral Sea story broke across the world, the Washington Post wrote, "Saving the Aral is a now-or-never endeavour." The Germans rushed to provide funds for a small biological station in Muynak to monitor changes in the Aral. The grim truth behind theAral Sea crisis is that, while the situation calls for immediate succour, the solution would involve a long haul struggle. As Michael Glantz of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado (USA) rightly observed, the Aral Sea crisis took 40 years in the making. Slow changes spread over a long time finally resulted in the mammoth set of problems that tilted the ecological balance of the region. Therefore, only "creeping environmental solutions" can help the Aral Sea crisis a they, could well take another 40 years. Can the Aral Sea wait for so long? As per the admission of a UNDP publication, "The Artic Sea crisis has been brought about through long-term neglect, of both the rivers" r. in supporting the ecologiM Can the Aral Sea be saved7 When the Aral Sea story broke across the world, the Washington Post wrote, "Saving the Aral is a now-or-never endeavour." The Germans rushed to provide ftinds for a small biological station in Muynak to monitor changes in the Aral.The grim truth behind the Aral Sea crisis is that, while the situation calls for immediate succour, the solution would involve a long haul struggle. As Michael Glantz of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado (uSA) rightly observed, the Aral Sea crisis took 40 years in the making. Slow changes spread over a long time finally resulted in the mammoth set of problems that tilted the ecological balance of the region. Therefore, only "creeping environmental solutions" equilibrium of the sea basin the domestic needs of shol term planning. It is now ger ally acknowledged that excessive diversion of water agricultural purposes was I main contributor to the balart ing of the basin ecosystem The report further "However, it is probably Poll cally unrealistic to expect use to be reduced significanq& given the fragile state of regional economies. In order maintain even shrunken level would requirIv yearly inflow of 30-40 cu km amount of water which impossible to get without infla ting grave damage on regionji agricultural production."

In economic terms it is simply impossible to reverse the land-use situation so dramaticatically that the Aral sea can be restored to its former glory. Worseaccording to one school of thought, it is now ecological impossible to recreate the Aral sea ecosystem that has been destroyed. In fact a senior World Bank official confided that since the Aral Sea was a saline lake and not a freshwater one, as the volume of water reduces the salinity levels increase killing all those species which were lonely tuned to the low salinity levels. Therefore, pouring in a lot of water now back into the A can only dilute the salinity and not revive either the destroyer life forms or the original ecosystem. Besides, bringing the All Sea back to its original glory would require at least 10 per cent more water than that formerly carried by the two rivers, Darya and Syr Darya. In any case it is a moot point which the two rivers have the same water conveyance capacity today .

According to a UNDP publication, "The eventual cost of halting the degradation and repairing the damage win probably run into billions, spread over decades." Nevertheless the world owes the long suffering people of the region an answer But who will bell the cat? Who will tell the beleagured million that this human-made crisis may now now have gone beyond human redemption? Is the truth indeed the truth? That even Central Asia could once again free up its enslaved rivers, Aral Sea will probably never be the same again!

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