Dry Tears of the Aral

Note: This article was originally published in the UN Chronicle, Issue 1, 1999.

Photo: Yusup Kamalov, standing in what 40 years ago was a deep seaport, heads the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea, a local non-governmental organization based in Nukus. 
©Eric Hilger.

Environmental experts have rung the death knell for the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

The world's fourth largest lake in 1960, the Aral Sea has already shrunk to half its former size - a result of unsustainable cotton cultivation that began less than 40 years ago. But though the sea itself can no longer be saved, its toxic salt plains have paradoxically given rise to a new spirit in the region.

The Aral Sea is only the epicentre of the "tragedy", as Central Asians commonly refer to this legacy of environmental misuse; the damage has also consumed thousands of surrounding square kilometers. Called "the most staggering disaster of the twentieth century" by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Aral Sea basin intersects all five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - which lie in a 690,000-square-kilometer landlocked zone.

The 3.5 million people who live in the region have seen their health, jobs and living conditions literally go down the drain. The once thriving fishing and canning industry has evaporated, replaced by anemia, high infant and maternal mortality, and debilitating respiratory and intestinal ailments.

Yet, in the face of such devastation, sea changes of another nature have begun - ones in which the United Nations has played a leading and positive role. Central Asian leaders who, following the independence of their republics from the former Soviet Union in 1991, had been locked in competition over scarce resources, have begun to cooperate as they struggle to address the region's enormous water crisis and environmental problems. And local people, who refer to the salt deposits left in the dusty seabed as "the dry tears of the Aral", have begun to feel a bit more hopeful.

Khalid Malik, Director of the Evaluation Office at UNDP in New York, ran the United Nations programmes in Uzbekistan from 1992 until the beginning of this year and offered his assessment of the situation. When he first arrived in Tashkent, he said tensions were building up among the newly independent Central Asian republics over the water issue. But since that time, Mr. Malik feels that considerable progress has been achieved.

The seeds of the Aral Sea basin water crisis were planted in 1959 when the Soviet Union picked Central Asia to serve as its cotton supplier.

Though cotton had been grown in Central Asia before, the scale and intensity of the Soviet plan were unique, and the Aral Sea's feeder rivers - Syr Darya and Amu Darya - were harnessed to provide the vast amounts of water needed to float this project.

By 1980 - just over 20 years later - Central Asia's production quotas reached 9 million tonnes, making it the world's fourth largest producer of cotton.

But the Aral Sea paid the price for this success. As its volume precipitously dropped, the Aral's waters turned toxic for fish and wildlife - not to mention human - populations that depended on them. The soil around the sea has become more saline as well. In order to prepare fields for cultivation, which are mostly desert lands, farmers must first leach or rinse them, which brings salty minerals to the surface. Moreover, as a result of the increased soil salinity, cotton harvests began to diminish.

Aksoltan Ataeva, Turkmenistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, describes the sea change that took place. "The lake was used for fishing and we could see sailing and fishing boats", she says. "Now, we still can see them, but they are stuck in the sands."

The United Nations has sought to address both the causes and the effects of the crisis in the Aral Sea basin, and primary among the approaches is water management. As long as humans have lived in Central Asia, dry air and water scarcity have been simple facts of life. Traditionally, mirabs, or water masters, controlled the water resources in Central Asia and ensured that water allocations corresponded to farmers' needs.

Reflected in a local proverb is the reverence with which water was once regarded: "In every drop of water there is a grain of gold." But under the Soviet system, water policies were driven by the goal of becoming "the largest producer of cotton" in the world, according to a 1997 World Bank study, "without considering issues of equity and the people's needs".

By installing a centralized bureaucracy in Moscow, the Soviet Union successfully broke the power of the mirabs in the region. But, at the same time, it suppressed a sense of accountability for water use at the local level. As a result, farmers developed wasteful practices which became entrenched throughout the region. Irrigation canals were rarely lined or covered, leading to massive water loss through evaporation and filtration. Turkmenistan's Kara Kum Canal, for example, flows for 1,200 kilometers over loose sands. Overall, irrigation efficiency is estimated to be no more than 40 to 50 per cent, according to a 1995 UNDP background report. Moreover, upstream farmers commonly allowed fertilizer run-off into the rivers with little thought or understanding as to its effects on their downstream neighbours. And instead of nurturing depleted soil back to life with crop rotation, they simply moved on to vacant, however marginal, lands.

These patterns, followed by thousands of farmers over nearly three decades, culminated in the full-blown environmental catastrophe that today affects the entire Aral Sea basin.

Soviet scientists understood that the massive water withdrawals needed to sustain their cotton "king" would cause the Aral Sea level to plummet, but they believed that a hard crust would form over the exposed seabed salts and minimize health and environmental fallout.

They were wrong. In fact, toxic salts and minerals, including sodium chloride, sodium sulfate and magnesium chloride, now constitute the greatest danger from the Aral Sea catastrophe. Because of air blown salts, Mrs. Ataeva stresses, "the zone of the Aral tragedy became larger". Toxic salts now rain down hundreds of kilometres from the Aral's basin, damaging crops and people's health in an increasing circumference. They have been found as far as 1,000 kilometres away in the fertile Ferghana valley, in Georgia, and even along the Arctic shore of the former Soviet Union, according to Philip P. Micklin, a leading expert on the situation, in his 1988 essay, "Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union".

The lands have turned into salt plains, presaging the coming desert. "Satellite imagery and photography from manned spacecraft indicate that desert is spreading rapidly" in the area, he says. Since that time, Aral Sea salt has been discovered in the Himalayan peaks and in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, according to a 1995 UNDP report, and the desertified bed of the Aral Sea continues to threaten farms and homes in the region.

Moreover, the shrinking Sea has also affected the continental climate of Central Asia. Without the moderating influence of a large body of water, the seasons have become more extreme. Already hot summers have become hotter, dryer and longer; and winters, shorter, more bitter and dry.

"Among all of these serious problems", says the Ambassador, "the most serious is the health problem". Polluted drinking water has had dire effects on the health of local people. Women and children have experienced frightening levels of maternal and infant mortality rates. And diseases, malnutrition and poverty plague the region.

Already by the 1970s, the water crisis had become acute, and the Soviet authorities worked to develop several typically monumental plans to relieve the shortages. One - dubbed the "Sibaral" - was to involve the transfer of waters from Siberian rivers to the Aral Sea. But after numerous drafts over a number of years, these plans were finally scrapped. The cancellation caused deep disappointment among Central Asians, intensifying their sense of abandonment and making the Aral Sea a potent symbol of that loss.

When the Central Asian Republics underwent economic transitions from centrally planned to market economies, they were ill-equipped to deal with the environmental problem in the Aral zone. Besides lack of funds, the republics had no history of diplomacy to draw upon to address their common problems.

"Every transition has a lot of problems", comments Ambassador Ataeva. "Our concern [has been] to keep development sustainable without giving difficulties to the population."

While most of the affected republics did begin to replace cotton with grain crops, their water needs have not lessened. Rather, they have begun to make increasing demands on the region's water supplies in order to promote their own agricultural and industrial development. In the early years of independence, as a result, "less water was available than in previous years", observes Mr. Malik.

And water soon became a source of competition. Though the two feeder rivers cross all the republics, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan control the headwaters, and the countries with the largest cotton economies - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - depend on waters that originate outside of their territories.

Heated debates began to emerge. As the countries jockeyed for control over their individual resources, they ignored the common environmental problems affecting the entire basin and were unable to come to a consensus on instituting margin-wide water use plans.

Because of its neutrality, the United Nations was seen as a natural candidate to provide a forum where such cooperation could develop. In 1995, it sponsored a meeting in Nukus - a semi-autonomous region in Uzbekistan and the capital of Karakalpakstan, one of the hardest-hit regions in the Aral basin. There, the five Central Asian leaders agreed to adopt a "charter for change" regarding water use, says Mr. Malik, who helped coordinate the event. This framework agreement provided for the establishment of a regional body called the International Foundation for the Aral Sea to oversee regional water management in the basin.

Alisher Vohidov, Uzbekistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, also states that international forums helped diffuse tensions between the Republics. "We all understand that water should not be an instrument of pressure from one country on another. It should be a question of friendly discussion to solve the question in the interest of all of these countries."

Moreover, the reality of water scarcity in Central Asia has led to a new attitude towards water. "We had plenty of water", says Mr. Vohidov, speaking of the past. "People used to use water without thinking where it came from", viewing it as a "natural gift". Today, they are at last coming to regard water as a scarce commodity, "a type of merchandise". Charging people for something they used to get for free has not, understandably, been a popular step in Uzbekistan. But it has been a necessary one, if people are to learn to respect water and treat it as a valuable resource, he adds.

But by now, the concept of "sustainable development" has entered the political lexicon. Akmaral Kh. Arystanbekova, Kazakhstan's Permanent Representative, says that during the Soviet period, the republics were unaware of the environmental effects of water mismanagement. "We didn't take the necessary measures to prevent this ecological disaster", she says, but today Kazakhstan does "consider the ecological consequences" of its economic policies. In February 1997, it hosted another joint meeting of the five Central Asian Heads of State, during which 1998 was designated the "Year of Environmental Protection". Ms. Arystanbekova stresses: "The cooperation and strengthening of environmental security in our region is a matter of great urgency for all five countries."

The five States are currently working on a convention to outline the terms of sustainable water use in the region. It will address root causes, such as lack of crop diversification and unrealistic water allocations, as well as the symptoms of the problem, says UNDP's Mr. Malik.

The United Nations, in conjunction with the World Bank, played a large role in mediating these political developments. But not much attention was paid at the outset to the social and human consequences of the Aral Sea basin tragedy. The initial funds provided by the World Bank - $260 million for Phase 1 of the Aral Sea Programme - were spent on research and assessment. "All previous studies emphasized the need to save the Sea", according to a 1997 World Bank report. But the Bank's mission concluded that the Sea itself is beyond salvation. "While there was scope for reducing wasteful use of water, the savings would not be enough to change the desiccated Sea", the report states.

Mr. Malik adds that the mission reported that millions of people living in the Aral zone "were suffering from lack of potable water, adverse health conditions, high soil salinity, sand and salt storms, and destruction of their environment", and that "local development activities alone would not be adequate to rehabilitate the disaster zone". Although people had the trappings of normal lives, such as apartments and telephones, they did not have enough to eat. As a result, they were forced to reduce their assets and "slaughter their cows for food", he explains. With no cash in the region, "the economy had drifted back into a barter economy. Poverty was the big issue" with female heads of households being the "most at risk".

In response, the United Nations shifted focus from research to poverty reduction, and knit together a cohesive programme to address people's needs on the ground. Projects helped facilitate access to water supplies, build micro-credit enterprises and strengthen local capacity through education, nutrition and health.

When he first arrived in Uzbekistan in 1992, Mr. Malik recalls that "the place was devoid of any and all hope". Malnutrition and infant mortality were higher in the Aral Sea zone than anywhere else in country. By 1996 and 1997, the situation stabilized, and the success of the programmes could be seen in the changing attitudes of local people. No longer passive victims of the Aral tragedy, "people are pumping ideas and energy" into new projects", according to Mr. Malik. For years, the people of the Aral Sea zone waited for Moscow, then for Tashkent, to help; but now, he says, they want to help themselves.

The Aral Sea's devastation may be unmatched in scale elsewhere in the world, but the human impulse that helped bring it about is not unique.

"Judging by the history of civilizations", says Tajikistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Rashid Alimov, "human beings can only have a negative impact on nature and then think about how to preserve it" once the damage has been done. "Every gigantic country has a gigantic idea", he says, referring to the massive environmental engineering projects of the Soviet era, which included the installation of cotton monoculture in Central Asia, the Siberian river diversion schemes and even a plan to melt icecaps in Tajikistan in an effort to alleviate the water shortage in the region. "But now we have small countries, and maybe we have small ideas that best fit the situation."

If this means a renewed respect for the environment and policies designed to suit local needs, then Central Asia will surely reap the benefits in the long run.

Though the temperatures in Central Asia are hotter than ever, the fever over water use seems to have broken. The United Nations has helped broker a new watershed agreement in the region built on cooperation.

Mr. Malik feels proud of the latest breakthroughs, but notes with caution that a "charter is only real if you actually change".