The Aral Sea: An Ecological Disaster in the Making

By Abdullah Faizur Rahman

Central Asia seems a remote and isolated place, disconnected from much of civilization. But it is the site of an ecological catastrophe with lessons for the entire world. You see, the Aral Sea is dying.

Once an oasis in the middle of Central Asia's expansive desert, it is now a part of the desert itself. Only three decades ago it was the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. Now it has shrunk to number ten, and shrinks more each day.

Some scientists estimate that by the year 2020 the Aral Sea could totally disappear from the face of the earth. With that, the lives of more than 5 million people of that region, mostly Muslims, could be in deep peril because of this unparalleled man-made environmental disaster.

Totaling an area of approximately 700,000 square miles, Central Asia lies in the middle of the Eurasian continent and was a part of former Soviet Union. The region comprises desert and semi-desert lands in the west and alpine mountains in the east. In the middle of this vast arid landscape lies the land-locked Aral Sea.

For tens of thousands of years, two of Central Asia's great rivers, the Amu-darya and Syr-darya, flowed from the Pamir highlands, feeding the Aral Sea with fresh water, keeping its salinity to a mild level. More than 175 species of fish and other animals thrived in that more pristine ecosystem. And not that long ago, more than 50,000 tons of fish were commercially harvested each year from that water.

But the Amu-darya and Syr-darya no longer reach the Aral Sea. Between 1954 and 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev oversaw the construction of the 800 mile Kara Kum canal system in Central Asia. As part of that project, one third of the Amu-darya's water was diverted to an elaborate irrigation network for growing cotton for the Soviet Union.

As for the Syr-darya, by the mid-1970s, 80 percent of its water had also been diverted for agricultural needs. Since then, the ever-increasing use of these rivers has resulted in greatly reduced volumes water entering the Aral Sea and excessive contamination from leached salt and agricultural chemicals.

Over the last 20 years, the Aral Sea's surface area has shrunk by half, its water level has dropped more than 60 feet, the salinity of its water has increased threefold, its shoreline has receded 100 miles in some places -- leaving a thick crust of toxic salt behind -- and a new desert of 15,000 square miles has emerged, increasing the desert area of the region by 30 percent.

In addition, more than 135 species of fish and animals, dependent upon the Aral Sea, have become locally extinct and commercial fishing has been stopped since 1981.

The Aral Sea straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But the environmental disaster has affected the entire region, including nearby Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Salt windstorms are common and it is estimated that should the Aral Sea completely disappear, there would be a staggering 15 billion tons of salt and agricultural chemical residue left behind for the wind to carry in to the eyes and lives of the people of Central Asia, possibly blowing as far as the Himalayas.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infectious diseases are on the rise in the region already. The impact of tuberculosis (TB) in the Aral area is the worst in all of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Cholera and typhoid epidemics have broken out in neighboring regions. Acute respiratory (ARI) and diarrheal diseases are the top two causes of mortality among children. And kidney diseases, various cancers and birth defects have all shown alarming increase.

In addition, climatic changes have made summer and winter temperatures more extreme, contributing to the disappearance of the unique marshland ecology of the river estuaries. The picture is haunting: abandoned fishing boats and trawlers lying tossed about and stranded on the sandy waves of an endless desert that once used to be the bottom of a sea. In a recent book published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, the Aral Sea disaster is referred to as the "Silent Chernobyl."

And another Chernobyl this crisis very well could be; especially when consideration is given to the probability of toxic biological agent contamination in the region. Vozrozhdenie (rebirth, in Russian), once a small island in the middle of the Aral Sea, was home to a Soviet germ warfare facility during the cold war era. At the end of the cold war, Russian scientists buried thousands of tons of toxic biological weapons to comply with arms reduction treaties. According to recent CIA reports, these toxins and germs have leaked and there is a real danger of human exposure.

Scientists are now studying the Aral Sea to learn how to mitigate the disaster. The World Bank has approved multimillion-dollar loans to the region for water supply, sanitation and health infrastructure projects. European countries have also shown positive response in preventing further deterioration of the situation.

But if the situation is reversed, then questions arise as to how to handle the region's inhabitants who have become dependent on the agricultural status quo. There are approximately 2 million people who make a living in agriculture using the irrigated water. Their right to support themselves and their families is a significant consideration. And water rights and water usage are controversial issues among the newly independent nations of central Asia, which depend largely on irrigated cotton as their main cash crop.

All together, it is an interesting and intriguing dilemma. Scientists, politicians, farmers and the United Nations have to come together to solve this problem prudently, so that other problems are not created in the process.

The challenges of this crisis are daunting, but not insurmountable. And as Dr. Daene McKinney of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas points out in a study on the issue, solving the Aral problem will help scientists mitigate the negative effects of similar crises throughout the world and possibly avert this sort of disaster in the future.

Abdullah Faizur Rahman is a Hydrologist and a Research Faculty member at California State University, Los Angeles

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