The shrinking sea

The gradual shrinking of the Aral Sea -- the world's 4th-largest inland waterbody -- has set alarm bells ringing in the Central Asian states that once formed part of the Soviet Union. Unresolved regional tensions over water use and ownership, and an indifferent international attitude, do not augur well for the sea's future.

The seeds of the crisis were sown in the '60s, when the then Soviet Union diverted the Amudarya and Syrdarya -- the 2 large rivers that feed the Aral Sea -- to a vast area of the Central Asian desert. By the '80s, over half the agricultural land in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and over a third in Tajikistan had been planted with cotton. This monocultural economy has had an all too visible impact on the Aral Sea, which used to supply it with 90 per cent of its water. In just over 30 years, the sea has suffered a 60 per cent volume loss while the sea level has dropped by 16 metres. It is now divided into the northern and southern seas and, according to forecasts, will shrink to one-third its original size and split further, leaving behind huge expanses of salt-encrusted desert that are wreaking havoc with farmlands in the cotton growing states.

Besides, although the main headwaters of the Amudarya and the Syrdarya originate within Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, most of the water is consumed in Uzbekistan, Kazakhastan and Turkmenistan. The states agreed on equal rights to water use and equal responsibility for its conservation in March 1992, but little effort has been taken to check the ecological degradation of the Aral basin. The only commitment the states were prepared to make was that the Aral Sea would receive a total of 10,500 billion litres of water from both rivers annually -- a mere tenth of the 110,000 billion litres that the sea used to receive every year.

The scramble for scarce water resources has sparked off serious confrontations between the states. Tensions are particularly acute in Kazakhastan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, where an emphasis on agricultural expansion has stoked the demand for water. Although the establishment of the Aralbank, a joint fund to improve the Aral Sea basin, has been proposed, it is unlikely that the financially-strapped countries will be able to raise the resources.

There is a clear lack of political will to tackle the Aral Sea crisis head-on. Turkmenistan has unilaterally decided to increase the Karakum canal, which already takes 12,000 billion litres of water from the Amudarya annually. And Kazakhastan reckons that "populist" programmes such as saving the Aral basin can wait until it strengthens its new national currency, the tenge.

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