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close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart II: The Aral Sea
close this folder4. Creeping environmental problems in the Aral Sea basin
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentIntroduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems
View the documentCharacteristics of CEPs
View the documentCEPs and the Aral region
View the documentConcluding comments and a call for research
View the documentAcknowledgement
View the documentReferences


With Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) in the mid 1980s, the international community received confirmation of what it had been able to detect from space at least since the mid-1970s - the gradual decline of the Aral Sea. Since the early 1960s, when the leaders of the Soviet Union embarked on a programme to increase river diversions in order to expand irrigated cotton production in this arid region, the sealevel has declined about 15 metres or so and its surface area has been reduced by half. Primary attention of policy makers and, later, multilateral development banks and environmental groups was focused on the declining Aral Sea level. This was the most visible impact from space and on the ground of reduced flow of the sea's two major feeder rivers, the Amudarya and the Syrdarya.

Although the decline in the level of the Aral Sea was the most obvious environmental change in the basin, there were several other adverse environmental changes as well. Because of the "creeping" nature of these environment-related changes (pollution of river and sea water, air quality degradation, deterioration of human health, desertification, and so forth), decision makers have had difficulty in addressing ways to slow down, arrest, or reverse the gradually occurring adverse changes. Perhaps the notion of creeping environmental problems (of which sealevel change is but one) can serve as an "umbrella" notion to encompass several of the environmental changes occurring in the Aral Sea basin. Eventually, however, these incremental changes have increasingly been perceived by some observers as having accumulated to such an extent as to have turned into crises. If Central Asian republics in the Aral basin can be convinced to address slow-onset, low-grade, long-term, cumulative environmental changes cooperatively and in a timely way, the adverse consequences could be mitigated and, perhaps, even averted.

The shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has captured the attention and interest of governments, environment and development organizations, the lay public, and the media around the globe (e.g. Orechkine, 1990; Ellis, 1990; The Economist, 1991,1994; O'Dy, 1991; UNU, 1992). Considered a quiet catastrophe, referred to in the former Soviet Union as a "Quiet Chernobyl" (e.g. Glantz and Zonn, 1991), one that has evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the past few decades, the demise of the Aral Sea has become acknowledged as one of the major human-induced environmental degradations of the twentieth century. The Aral basin was singled out by the International Geographical Union (IGU) in the early 1990s as one of the Earth's critical zones (see Kasperson et al., 1995).

Whereas societies respond (i.e. react) relatively quickly to step-like adverse environmental changes or to problems perceived by experts or elements of the public as crises, for example "rapid-onset hazards" (Palm, 1990), they have much more difficulty in developing awareness of the risks associated with slow-onset, low-grade change. This paper is as much about the nature of creeping environmental problems as it is about environmental change in the Aral Sea basin. It attempts to draw attention to the general notion of creeping environmental problems (Caps) and societal responses to them, to develop a framework for characterizing (Caps) in general, and to suggest the utility of applying that notion to recent environmental changes in the Aral Sea basin. The overriding objective of this chapter is not to provide the reader with a detailed assessment of creeping changes in the Aral Sea basin (for this assessment, see Glantz, 1998), but to spark discussion of ways to identify and overcome constraints on societal responses to creeping environmental change.