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The Town of the XXI Century
Series of reports on ecological situation in Central Asia

ARAL SEA: TODAY, TOMORROW AND IN THE FUTURE:

THE OVERVIEW OF SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS, ANALYSIS, COMMENTS

10 years ago expeditions came to Aral Sea from all over the country. Scientists-botanists, biologists, meteorologists and hydrologists worked here. The name of the Sea was very often associated with the word "problem". It was usually said : "the Aral Sea problem".

Aral Sea is really very beautiful. The knowing people suggested that the square of the surface water of Aral Seawas at the fourth position in the world and at the second position in our country. There were more than 1000 islands scattered all over Aral Sea. The largest among them included Kok-Aral, Barsakelmes, Vozrozhdenie. The Kok-Aral island separated the north-eastern part, which was called the Small Sea, from the south-western part - the Large Sea. The two parts are connected by the Berg strait.

The waters of two rivers - Amudaria and Syrdaria - which were flowing into the sea for centuries, started to be taking away for watering the crop lands. In the basins of these rivers water and heat consuming crops were grown - cotton, rice, vegetables, grapes. To water the more than 6 million hectares of crop fields, water was taken out of Amudaria and Syrdaria. Every year the rivers brought less and less water to the sea. The sea was moving away from its original shores, leaving behind the dry land covered by the crust of salt.

Till 1960 nobody was thinking about the Aral tragedy. After people started to take large quantities of water to water huge territories of crop lands, the Sea started to dry out and die. Shallow bays disappeared and new islands appeared. Kok-Aral island became a peninsula. Places where fish lived started to disappear and the fish can no longer naturally increase its population. The concentration of salt in the water significantly increased and this caused the drop of water freezing temperature to -2 degrees C and determined the fall of water temperatures under the ice cover. In these circumstances it is difficult to survive through the winter. The concentration of oxygen in the water decreased and this may lead to the death of the fish.

Lower levels of water supplied by Amudaria and Syrdaria led to disappearance of their delta bodies of water inhabited by various water animals. The animals also started to disappear.

However, this is not all of the problem. Currently the Sea has moved tens of kilometers away from its original shores. The winds, blowing from the sea, catch the salt, which was left on the sea bottom, and carry it to the crop fields. Such salt winds can destroy the cotton crops at the very beginning of their vegetation period. To move the salt away from the soil it is necessary to continuously water the land during a long period of time. This requires even more fresh water to be supplied.

In the end of 1970s many newspapers and magazines discussed the option of saving the Sea by moving Syberian rivers into Central Asia and Kazakhstan. But this option resulted in discussion of other options and because of that its implementation was delayed.

Prognosis of the Aral Sea future was really dark. Here are the words of the First Secretary of Kyzyl-Orda Regional Party Committee, Mr. Auelbekov, at the VII Meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (March 14, 1987): "Aral Sea is dying. It is level has fallen by 12 meters. In some places the Sea has moved 100 kilometers away from its original shores. Millions of tons of salt laying on the ground are carried away by winds for large distances. Currently the expansion of deserts is taking place on large territories, large jungles of indigenous bushes, pastures and unique animal have disappeared. Aral Sea has lost its transportation and fish catching significance. The levels of infection diseases have increased and the epidemiological situation has deteriorated. The ecological, economic and social consequence of disappearance of the whole sea are unpredictable. The nature does not give us time for fruitless discussions. The Aral tragedy is a tragedy of the nations of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. It overshadows the problems of Baikal and other places. If the Aral Sea tragedy is joint by the Balkash tragedy, then the consequences will be catastrophic".

Let me stress the fact that these words were said more than 10 years ago. Has anything changed since that time?

In 1996, Piter Brandes wrote a short essay, which was published in "The Aral Sea Basin Monitor" bulletin. This essay provides us with a part of the answer to the question.

"I work as a UNDP small business development specialist in the framework of Aral region rehabilitation and development of its potential. The center for implementation of this program was opened in the city of Aralsk. Local people have many business development ideas and I help them to develop business plans, search for grants and loans. I also teach small entrepreneurs how to develop their enterprises, provide consultations in the sphere of small business development.

However, some things really disappoint me. For example, an entrepreneur turns to me and ask to help him purchase vehicles for transportation of cooled fish. I also, know about some ideas to develop fishing enterprises, however, Syrdaria waters are becoming too salty for many kinds of fish. That is why I can not help anybody to obtain loans for development of the fishing industry since I know that fishing does not have any future in this region? Many people want to establish or expand camel or cow farms, but I know that many bodies of water are becoming salty and dry out. Do I have to help people in these cases to obtain loans for purchasing vehicles and cows? Currently the United States Agency for International Development is renovating the water supply system of Aralsk, but where the funds to exploit the renovated system will come from? For example, in the Netherlands these funds come from water fees collected from water users. But people living in Aralsk do not have enough money even to purchase bread for their families. Will they be able to find money to pay for drinking water? If not, then in 10-15 years the Agency for International Development will have to come back to Aralsk and conduct the next renovation of the water supply system.

After the fall of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan lost traditional markets of its industrial products and the opportunities for acquiring necessary resources needed to develop its economy. The people living in Aralsk had to face similar difficulties, however, their situation was worsened by the loss of fishing opportunities and the loss of ship building industry, which resulted from the ecological catastrophe. To ensure the survival of the remaining part of the fishing industry it is necessary to increase the amount of water supplied from Syrdaria river. That is why it is very important to conserve water in the upper part of the river. I consider that, if Syrdaria continues to dry out, than it will be useless for donors to invest in projects in Aralsk. Even cattle growing, the main type of economic activity in the region, suffers from decreasing water supply and accumulation of salt. In Aral Sea region donor investments do not support stable development, unless water is conserved in the upper parts of the river. Currently, I have the feeling that I work in the region where there is no hope: water will never return to Aralsk, cattle growing has no future, fishing industry will die completely. I will not continue my contract with UNDP, but for the sake of the people living in Aralsk, I appeal to all the people who carry out water conservation programs: preserve the water and do not let the people in Aralsk die of starvation. Do this before the time when the last fisherman of Aralsk will have no place to catch his fish from".

So, more than 10 years have passed since the moment when Mr. Auelbekov predicted the catastrophic consequences of disappearance of Aral Sea. Within 35 years (since 1960 till 1995) the water level has decreased by 16 meters, its volume is 3 quarters lower and the square of the water mirror has shrunk by half. In the lower parts of Syrdaria 100 thousand hectares of alluvial soils have been filled with salt. More than half a million of swamp soils have dried out. More than 10 types of grass, which were eaten by sheep, goats, camels and horses have disappeared or changed. Till 1960s in Aral Sea region, especially in river deltas, there were more than 70 types of mammals and 319 types of birds. Currently there are only 32 types of mammals and 160 types of birds.

Amudaria and Syrdaria rivers do not bring their waters to Aral Sea. The ecological catastrophe of Aral Sea, which was widely discussed in 1980s, has actually happened. The Sea has lost its transportation and fishing significance. It has divided into the Large and Small (Northern) Aral Sea and moved away from the shores for 150 kilometers. More than 30 thousand square kilometers of the sea bottom have become open. The bottom is covered by salts. Scientists estimate that more than 100 million tons of salt dust are annually blown away and carried far away from the former sea. Specialists suggest that these dust clouds can change the climate all over the planet.

By the way, about the climate. Meteorologists have noted that climate in Aral Sea region had changed. On the near-the-shore territories of Aral Sea atmospheric precipita
tion has decreased several times, air humidity has also fallen down, winters became colder and summers - hotter. Thousands of hectares of once fertile lands are currently filled with salt and are useless for agricultural purposes.

Air, fresh water, soil pollution has caused people living in the region to suffer more often from various diseases and forced the death rate to climb up.

Disturbance of the water-salt balance resulted in changes of living conditions of animals. Amudaria and Syrdaria waters carried multitudes of chemicals into the Sea - those were fertilizers and pesticides washed away from the fields. High concentration of heavy metal amalgamations and chlore-containing substance in the water has caused deaths of fish; many types of fish suffered from cancer-related diseases. The total, so to say, summarized or cumulative effect of all types of influences has led to disturbance of the developed chains, which are common for natural systems.

Ecological systems of delta fields, where people grew their crops for centuries, have significantly changed.

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