|Central Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)|
|Part I: introduction|
|2. Central Eurasian water perspectives and arid land studies|
I participated in the Tokyo University Iraq-Iran Archeological Mission in 1956. Since then I have visited many rivers and lakes on the Eurasian landmass. Most of these are geographically located in arid and semi-arid areas where sparse precipitation and high evaporation rates are dominant. Among the world's inland lakes, the Dead Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Aral Sea are of extraordinary interest from the point of view of arid land studies and for the need for future peaceful and sustainable economic development.
The water level of the Dead Sea, one of the deepest inland lakes and with the highest salinity levels, has dropped in recent years, while the water level of the Caspian Sea has risen. The Aral Sea is drying up, and its surface area has decreased by about half. Although we know these facts, there is not enough information for use in long-range planning. These regional changes are proceeding at different time and space scales and for different reasons. We must rescue and rehabilitate these lake regions if there is to be any hope for sustainable development in and around them in the not-too-distant future.
In the case of the Dead Sea, the problem for the future is how to stop the decrease in sealevel and how to revitalize the Dead Sea region. One solution might be to resort to dramatic mega-engineering efforts, another might to support steady, small-scale development along its coastline. Activities such as these will require careful management.
About 40 years ago, a colleague and I translated a book by Ivanov Omsky, in which there was a lot of praise for state plans concerning the transformation of the natural environment, especially in the arid areas of the Soviet Union. The miracle of the development of the Hungry Steppe near Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and the construction of the Karakum Canal (in Turkmenistan), which enabled large segments of the Karakum Desert to be irrigated and developed for agricultural production, have been well publicized. The development of the cotton culture industry in the Central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan, has been very well known.
After I attended the Fifth All-Union Soviet Geographical Congress (1970, Leningrad) and the International Geographical Congress (1976, Moscow and Ashchabad), I received many papers on arid lands. However, up to the 1980s there was no mention of the Aral Sea crisis, especially the shrinking of the sea basin and its influence on the inhabitants.
I first visited the Dead Sea (Jordan) in 1956, and since then I have visited the upper branches of the Jordan River and its tributaries in Lebanon and Syria several times. In 1961, I visited the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley on the Israeli side. Unfortunately, the water problems of that area have been largely a function of political tension between Israel and its neighbouring Arab countries. The construction of a national water pipeline by Israel has diminished the water flow from Lake Tiberias into the Jordan River; as a result, the sealevel of the Dead Sea has fallen. The inequitable distribution of water between Israel and the occupied territories has caused a high level of tension between the inhabitants of both regions.
Israel, the PLO, and Jordan agreed on a peace treaty in 1993, although it is a partial one. This was a milestone on the road to peace, even though many difficulties are likely to lie ahead. However, in reality, the planning of water resources is still under debate on both sides of the Jordan Valley and among outside authorities.
In 1958 I visited Professor Reifenberg, the author of The Desert and the Sown. He spoke of the Med-Dead Sea Canal Project. I met Eng. Batz, Vice-Mayor of Beer-Sheva, who was involved in the planning of the Second Suez Canal. During my interviews in 1961, I never expected the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflicts that we now see. The time has come to reconsider the canal plan, but as yet no assessment has been made of this theoretical plan, and the consensus of relevant countries has not yet been forthcoming.
For the Caspian Sea, one of the largest lakes in the world, environmental studies suggest that the problem of sealevel change is not so acute in comparison with that of the Aral Sea. None the less, the recent increase in the level of the Caspian Sea, especially along the southern and south-western shorelines, pollution by petroleum industries, and the decline of lucrative fisheries will cause problems for the inhabitants of the Caspian Sea coastal region. The Caspian is now surrounded by five states: Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Just a few years ago there were only two littoral states - the Soviet Union and Iran. In addition, each former Soviet Central Asian republic has its own national political and socio-economic problems, making it difficult to coordinate these states for the sake of resolving the Caspian Sea problems.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics have suffered from severe economic crises, despite the reemergence and importance of commerce and trade in traditional bazaars. The continued exploitation of hydrocarbon resources and the discovery of new ones may eventually serve to vitalize some of these economies. However, to benefit from the export of petrol or natural gas, close cooperation will be required with neighbouring countries, such as Iran and Turkey, as well as support from the world market-place. Under such conditions, Central Asian affairs cannot be viewed as isolated from happenings in other parts of the world.
Consider the role of Central Asia in history. The dry steppe of the Eurasian landmass has always been a crossroads of civilization, trade, commerce, and military conquests. Once flourishing political entities, such as Khorezm, declined after the destruction of their irrigation systems.