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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


Michael H. Glantz


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.

Introduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems

We are constantly bombarded in our daily lives with bad news about the environment. Some of that news is about environmental problems of a global nature and some of it is about problems at the local level. Some of these problems have long lead-times before their adverse consequences become apparent, whereas others develop over relatively shorter time-frames. The list of these environment-related problems is quite long and is still growing: air pollution, acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, droughts, famines, and the accumulation of nuclear and solid waste are the results of long-term, low-grade, and slow-onset cumulative processes. These kinds of problems can be called creeping environmental problems (CEPs) as opposed to rapid-onset natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, storm surges, riverine floods, and severe winter storms. The schematic diagrams in figures 4.1 and 4.2 illustrate some of the differences between these two types of environmental changes. Creeping environmental problems cut across academic disciplines, political ideologies, continents, and cultures.

A major feature that CEPs share is that a change in a creeping environmental problem does not make it much worse today than it was yesterday; nor is the rate or degree of change tomorrow likely to be much different from that of today. So societies (individuals as well as government bureaucrats) do not, for the most part, recognize changes severe enough to cause them to treat their environments any differently than they had on previous days. Yet incremental changes in environmental conditions accumulate over time with the eventual result that, after some perceived if not objectively defined threshold of change has been crossed, those unimportant imperceptible increments of change "suddenly" appear as major degradation. If no action is then taken, as is often the case, those incremental changes will likely continue to mount until a full-blown crisis emerges.

Fig. 4.1 Schematic of a rapid-onset natural hazard (Source: Burton and Hewett, 1974)

Fig. 4.2 Schematic of slow-onset (creeping) environmental problems (Source: Döös, 1994)

Many changes to the environment are not considered detrimental in their early stages and, if arrested early enough in the process, would not appear at all on anyone's list of environmental problems. Such changes would likely be viewed as environmental transformation and not as degradation. For example, the cutting down of a small part of a mangrove forest to create a shrimp pond would not necessarily signal a stage in the destruction of a mangrove forest ecosystem (transformation). If, however, numerous ponds were to be constructed in the same location, then the mangrove forest ecosystem and its interactions with other ecosystems would eventually cease (degradation).


At a workshop on "Adaptive Ecological Characterization," sociologist John Petterson (1995) noted the importance of thresholds in environmental change.

Ecosystems, regardless of how they are defined, must be viewed in the context of accelerated change in the dominant variable, i.e., the social, political, economic, technological, and other factors that have altered the larger environmental context of every ecosystem or subsystem. [Societal] change is not occurring in a linear fashion and, therefore, concern should be on thresholds at which irreversible consequences are initiated.

For each of the creeping environmental changes there may be identifiable thresholds beyond which continued degradation of the environment will increase the likelihood of irreversible changes in a societally favoured ecosystem. Thresholds, however, are easier to talk about than to detect. In fact, in many cases they may be identifiable only in retrospect, after they have been surpassed.

When discussing thresholds of awareness of environmental change, it is necessary to consider whose awareness we are concerned with. Levels of awareness of changes in the environment will increase as the environmental change persists and worsens. At first, for such (Caps) as deforestation and desertification, changes may be noted by individuals at the local level but may not be seen as a threat of any sort and may go unreported to local or regional authorities or to national researchers. For truly global issues such as global warming or stratospheric ozone depletion, it would likely be a scientific researcher who first noticed an incremental environmental change.

As the environmental change is believed to have intensified in time (i.e. taken on a faster rate), in space (i.e. affecting a larger surface area than expected), or in impact (i.e. adversely impinging on human activities), it may be brought to the attention of authorities by local officials and environmental researchers. At this level, such changes might capture the attention and interest of the media. A further deepening of the adverse consequences associated with the change could prompt awareness at the national policy-making level, as well as of the international media, which can internationalize awareness of what had originally been viewed as a local environmental problem. Who it is that first generates awareness of a creeping environmental change and of subsequent thresholds of awareness can vary from one region to the next and from one type of creeping environmental change to another: it could be a farmer, a scientist, a policy maker, a news reporter.

There are several subjectively based thresholds that could be identified for creeping environmental problems: a first threshold relates to awareness of an environmental change that has not yet been considered a problem; a second threshold relates to awareness that a previously undetected environmental change has become a problem; a third threshold relates to the realization that the problem has reached a crisis stage; and a fourth one relates to a threshold that leads to concerted action to cope with the problem. With regard to the CO2 issue, the scientific community has chosen a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels of the pre-industrial era (about AD 1750) as an arbitrary indicator of a threshold. A doubling, however, is of no particular scientific significance. No major changes in the atmosphere are expected to occur once that level of atmospheric CO2 has been reached. Thus, it is a quantitative threshold that has been arbitrarily designated. Because these problems derive from slow-onset, low-grade, long-term, and cumulative environmental changes, it is not easy to identify universally accepted objective quantitative indicators of thresholds.

Steps of awareness

Threshold 1: Awareness of change

Agricultural people are busy with their daily routines and in most parts of the world that translates to human activities directly related to food production. Preoccupied with day-to-day efforts to eke out a living from the land, these people are likely to notice small changes in their environment. Those small changes are not considered to be an immediate problem, or perhaps even a problem at all. They are viewed as a modification or transformation of nature. In fact, such changes might at first be viewed as a precondition in the drive toward an improved quality of life for local inhabitants. Short-term benefits seem to override any concern about potential long-term implications of such small, seemingly benign, environmental changes. The rates of such change are not seen by anyone as threatening to human activities or to the long-term productivity of the environment. They may also be viewed as easily reversible.

Threshold 2: Awareness of a CEP

The recognition by an individual or a group that an environmental change has become a problem suggests that another threshold has been crossed. Not all observers will likely agree that a problem has emerged. Case histories of other CEPs, such as global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion, underscore that scientific uncertainties that surround an issue can be highlighted in such a way as to raise questions about whether the environment has changed significantly and, if so, whether that change had become a societal problem requiring action. This raises issues of risk acceptance, risk avoidance, and risk-making, with different elements in a society exhibiting one of these predispositions toward risk. The existence of opposing views notwithstanding, a threshold of awareness has been crossed that prompts the attention of decision makers at the regional or national levels of government.

Threshold 3: Crisis awareness

Usually, a "whistle blower" or a champion to lead the call for combating the CEP emerges when that problem reaches a crisis level. A crisis can be defined as a crossroad or critical turning point. It has also been defined as a critical decision point (e.g. short time to act, high threat, high cost of inaction).

In the risk assessment literature related to environmental issues (e.g. Kahneman et al., 1982), the notion of "dread risk" or "dread factor" has been used. A dread factor refers to a more ominous situation than crisis, in that it relates to a situation with a perceived lack of control, or with imminent catastrophic potential, or with fatal consequences. Crisis does not equate to dread. Resorting to the citing of a dread risk is a tactic that can backfire if the alleged dread status of the CEP is shown to be unsupported by facts. In generating societal belief that a critical threshold has been crossed and that a CEP demands immediate attention, the media (national and international) are often instrumental.

Threshold 4: Awareness of the need to act

Awareness of a crisis, however, often fails to translate directly into societal responses. By now the local community has likely become overwhelmed by the CEP and its local impacts. Only the national or international community can help them to cope with the CEP. However, as is often the case, given the degree of scientific and economic controversy (i.e. uncertainties) that usually surrounds CEPs, policy makers can choose to delay the enactment of coping policy responses. Thus, the last of the thresholds focuses on action, taken domestically or internationally.

Threshold 5: Action

What does it mean to "take action" on a creeping environmental problem? Although there is a wide range of possible actions that could be taken in the name of seeking to resolve a CEP, meaningful actions can be identified in objective terms for each CEP. Those actions would need to be defined in terms of the goals to be achieved by particular actions: slow down the rate of a creeping environmental change; arrest the progression of the change; reverse the direction of the change; restore the ecosystem. Actions taken at the lowest level of effectiveness (i.e. slow down the rate of the adverse change) can be challenged as ineffective by those who want to confront the problem more aggressively. Thus, responses to questions such as "have policy makers taken action" to combat desertification or deforestation or global warming will not necessarily be in agreement, because varying levels of actions in response to a CEP could be taken.

In sum, we need to identify thresholds and to recognize that they would likely vary from one region to another, even for the same type of environmental degradation. What is that threshold of awareness and of crisis? When is the appropriate time to act on a creeping environmental change (Glantz, 1994)? Before applying the notion of CEP to the Aral Sea basin, a close scrutiny of a variety of known CEPs could be instructive in identifying objective ways to recognize thresholds before they appear.

Characteristics of CEPs

Several general characteristics can be used to categorize CEPs into subgroups: time and space scales, rates of change, levels of scientific uncertainty, levels of visible degradation, the seemingly impersonal nature of the causes of CEPs or their effects (e.g. the tragedy of the commons), degree of politicization of an issue, reversibility of the CEP, etc.

The perceived rate at which an environmental change takes place is very important when it comes to the timing of societal responses to those changes. Although there may be ways to identify those rates quantitatively, it is often the perception of those rates that prompts action. To policy makers, as well as to the general public, rates of change are often as important, if not more so, than the magnitude of the change. Slow rates of change do not provoke societal concern, let alone response. Rapid rates tend to lead to rapid responses by decision makers. Yet rates of environmental change are often quite controversial. The scientific and popular literature on each CEP yields a broad range of rates with little agreement among them. For example, for desertification in the West African Sahel, rates of desertification vary by an order of magnitude; even the sign of the change has fallen into question (Tucker et al., 1991). For tropical deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, the variance is considerable, by a factor of seven (Paris) and Glantz, 1992). Interestingly, in the Brazilian case, that rate of change varied from one year to the next in the 1980s. Determining when specific CEP thresholds have been crossed is not an easy task.

The time-frame over which an environmental change develops into a full-blown environmental crisis affects the lead-time available for response by decision makers to any one of the various thresholds. Thus, perceptions about the need to respond to crisis situations can develop over long as well as short time-scales. Global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion are considered global changes that occur on a decades-to-centuries time-scale; deforestation, desertification, and inland sealevel changes are regional changes occurring from years to decades; droughts (and famines) are local- to regional-scale processes that develop over a period of several months to a few years.

It may seem odd to speak of, and lump together under the same "umbrella," creeping environmental problems that occur on various time-scales. One might ask, for example, if those concerned about famine avoidance can respond to that CEP in a matter of several months, why can't other decision makers respond to their CEP relatively quickly as well? To address this point, one needs to take into account the scope of the problem (its magnitude, intensity, duration, reversibility). Although scientists and policy makers may not know exactly when thresholds of environmental change will occur with regard to their CEP, they apparently believe they have enough lead time to act, once the environmental change appears to have become a crisis.

Generally speaking, scientific uncertainties will always surround CEPs. For example, in the 1970s, researchers drew attention to spreading deserts in the West African Sahel, using photographs and satellite imagery to support their views. However, some scientists have suggested that the total area affected by desertification around the world had actually decreased by the end of the 1980s (Tucker et al., 1991). Even with regard to ozone depletion, an issue on which most scientists agree, a small but vocal backlash group has continued to challenge the evidence of ozone depletion in Antarctica.

For most CEPs there is a minority voice, often loud, that focuses on scientific uncertainties, as opposed to emphasizing what is known. Such conflicting interactions among groups within the scientific community tend to weaken the resolve of non-scientists who are expected to act (the public, policy makers, the media). Given the state of scientific knowledge on most CEPs, one can likely find within the body of scientific literature viewpoints and quantitative information to support (or attack) any desired policy action. The selective use of information drawn from the scientific literature enables policy makers to pursue any decisions they wish, regardless of the reliability of the particular pieces of scientific information they choose to use. There is a need to collect and assess the wide range of rates in the scientific literature and in the popular media for each of the different CEPs, and to identify confidence limits for each of the plausible estimates (e.g. Parisi and Glantz, 1992).

Why do CEPs continue?

Creeping environmental problems change the environment in a negative, cumulative, and, at least for some period of time, invisible way. As a result of these minor insults to the environment over time, during which no obvious step-like changes occur, both governments and individuals tend to continue to view their "usual activities" as acceptable. They assume that their activities have little, if any, lasting impact on the environment. For many people, changing routine behaviour is not easy. As Eric Hoffer (1952, p. 3) suggested in his book The Ordeal of Change, "It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoyevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things, the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding." People fear change and, unless a crisis situation is perceived, they are not likely to behave differently in the absence of any incentive to do so.

Reasons (or excuses) for not taking action are many. For the global warming issue, one excuse for delaying a societal response has been its time-scale. If the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not expected to occur at least until the middle of the twenty-first century or later, why worry now? Why sacrifice (some would argue, squander) the scarce time (of politicians) and money (of societies) on such a distant problem? Yet, similar requests to delay responses also occur when confronted by creeping phenomena of much shorter time-scales, such as drought-related famines, sealevel decline, or degradation of urban water quality. Thus, creeping environmental problems can be defined in such a way that they can occur on several time-scales. The time factor becomes an important characteristic of a CEP, when the rate at which the CEP progresses is compared with the timing of the appearance of its adverse consequences.

Another reason fostering inaction on Caps relates to scientific uncertainty. For example, why act at all regarding the global warming issue, when the scientific information about this particular CEP is sometimes contradictory and the remaining uncertainties are many? Yet, as suggested earlier, most environmental changes will likely be surrounded by scientific uncertainties. Nevertheless, policy makers are constantly forced to make policy decisions surrounded by uncertainty. Thus, whenever scientific uncertainty is used as an excuse for avoiding risks associated with decision-making, it should be challenged as a reason for delaying action.

Considerable discussion exists in the literature and the popular media about risk takers and those who are risk averse. The former are gamblers, whereas the latter tend to be more conservative in their approaches (and responses) to environmental change. Another related risk category that can be distinguished from these two existing ones is that of risk makers. These are decision makers whose decisions make risks for others but not necessarily for themselves. For example, reluctance to take action to slow down or stop desertification processes threatening a village far from the capital city where politicians live will likely have little political effect on decision makers at the national level. Their inaction generates growing risks for the distant inhabitants of a threatened village, but not necessarily for themselves. With regard to the declining Aral Sea level, in reality there were no adverse impacts on those in Moscow who made decisions that led to a declining Aral Sea level.

Most environmental problems do not affect an entire population of a country in a direct and visible way. At first, only those directly affected become concerned about local degradation. A central authority is likely to view that degradation as a local problem, even though similar processes may be occurring in other parts of the country (e.g. "we don't care if the Aral Sea disappears," "we don't care if species in the tropical rainforest disappear"). How, then, might the interest of central authorities (or unaffected citizens) in a local or regional creeping environmental problem be developed and sustained? The bottom line is that risk makers are often not held accountable for the environmental crises that result from their decisions.

Yet another constraint on timely action to address a CEP involves the fact that what appears to be an environmental crisis to one person may be viewed as an opportunity to someone else. For example, whereas some people may be concerned about environmental degradation, others might believe such degradation is the necessary result of a trade-off for economic development. Once past a crisis (i.e. defined as a crossroad or turning point), however, there may be a dread factor, an apocalyptic point beyond crisis from which there is no return to sustainability for the environment or the society dependent on it. With regard to the global warming issue, there have been several attempts by scientists to identify dread factors in order to provoke meaningful action from policy makers to combat it. With regard to any particular environmental problem, one can usually find examples of the use of dread factors to prompt political and societal action. The global warming situation provides a useful example of this.

In the mid-1970s modelling experiments proposed the use of 4 x CO2 (4 times pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide) as well as 2 x CO2 experiments. The 4x scenarios, however, were highly unrealistic and were dropped. A doubling of pre-industrial levels of CO2 then took on the aura of a dread factor, although there was really nothing significant about using a doubling as a threshold of change. In the late 1970s, some scientists raised concern about the possibility of a breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet, globally raising the sealevel rapidly by 8 metres or so. Further scientific research sharply reduced the probability of such an event. Yet another attempt to identify a dread factor was mention of the possibility of abrupt, highly disruptive changes in ocean currents over a period of a few decades (as opposed to centuries or millennia) in response to a warmer atmosphere (Broecker, 1987).

The search for an uncontestable crisis, if not dread risk, in the global warming issue continues, because previous dread factors have not captured the sustained concern of the public or of politicians. The lack of a dread risk notwithstanding, governments, for a variety of reasons, slowly began to cooperate on this CEP through the activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN Climate Convention was ratified on 21 March 1994 and, a year later, the first international Conference of the Parties was convened in Berlin, Germany, to discuss its implementation.

Döös (1994), using greenhouse gas emissions as an example, has suggested some reasons why actions by society to protect the environment have been slow and insufficient. He focused on the availability of objective scientific information: the reluctance of scientists to downplay scientific uncertainty, the focus by the media on sensational news rather than on scientific facts, deliberate neglect of scientific information for political and other reasons.

Jamieson (1991) identified and briefly summarized several reasons that affect timely policy response to climate change, which is a creeping environmental problem. Replacing the phrase "climate change" with CEP provides us with another set of factors that tend to delay societal responses to this type of environmental problem. Some of these are as follows:

1. The audience for [CEP] information is extremely diverse and the same message can mean different things to different people.

2. Many people... are not scientifically equipped to understand more than the rudiments of a [CEP] issue.

3. The impacts of a [CEP] are perhaps more correctly represented probabilistically.... In general, people are notoriously bad at assimilating and reasoning about probabilistic information.

4. Significant [CEP] is a long-term, rather than a near-term, possibility. Most people, including most policymakers, are not used to thinking about such long-term events.

5. Many of the [CEP] effects on human welfare will be relatively invisible.... People have difficulty linking... indirect impacts to an initial cause.

6. The onset of a [CEP] is gradual and uncertain, rather than dramatic and obvious.

Jamieson concluded that "our political and institutional structures are unlikely to respond aggressively enough to be helpful in the near term. So, for the present, the resource managers will be left to their own devices. The de facto policy is likely to be one of incrementalism or 'muddling through"' (Jamieson, 1991, p. 327).

The possibility also exists that, for issues as insidious as global warming, changes in climate at a regional or local level might not provide enough proof (e.g. the fingerprint) of a global climate change, because some Caps may not exhibit a readily identifiable threshold of change. US Vice President Gore has often suggested that "[w]e are not unlike the laboratory frog that, when dropped into a pot of boiling water, quickly jumps out. But when placed in lukewarm water that is slowly heated, the frog will remain there until it is rescued" (Gore, 1992, p. 42).

The following section is an attempt to identify a set of environmental changes in the Aral Sea basin that can be viewed as creeping environmental problems. It provides a brief description of each CEP and issues a call for an intensive research effort to fill in a CEP matrix for each, identifying as best as possible thresholds of awareness alluded to earlier in the chapter. The region provides, in essence, a living laboratory for geographers, biologists, political scientists, water resource specialists, environmental philosophers, politicians, among others, where they can see, within the course of one generation, the impacts of economic decisions that were devoid of societal or environmental considerations.

CEPs and the Aral region

In the late 1950s, the Aral Sea was the Earth's fourth-largest inland body of water with respect to surface area. In 1960 the mean level of the Aral Sea was measured at 53.4 metres, its surface area at 66,000 km2, and its volume at about 1,090 km3. A flourishing sea fishery industry existed, based on the exploitation of a variety of commercially valued species. During the past three decades, the Aral Sea region (see fig. 4.3) has become a major world-class ecological and socio-economic problem. It is now the sixth-largest inland water body.

The streamflows of the two perennial river systems, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, have, in the relatively recent past, sustained a stable Aral Sea level. Over the centuries, about half of the flow of the two rivers reached the Aral; a major expansion of irrigated cotton production altered this ecological balance. A sizeable portion of Central Asia's agricultural production is dependent on irrigation. Irrigated agriculture in the region pre-dates by millennia the era of tsarist conquests of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is "new" about irrigation in the region, however, is the huge amount of water diverted from the region's major rivers and, in turn, the large proportion of arable land devoted to cotton production. Beginning in the late 1970s, no water from the Syrdarya reached the Aral Sea, and the Amudarya supplied only a minimal and ever-decreasing volume. Large diversions, poor irrigation construction and maintenance, and mismanagement of water resources have been identified as major causes of the decreased flow to the Aral Sea (e.g. Bedford, 1996).

Awareness of the potential degradation surrounding the Aral Sea draw-down was widespread, even in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when policy makers had a blind faith in the use of technological fixes to overcome obstacles in the paths to economic development and when the Soviet government did not allow organized dissent. The fate of the Aral Sea, under conditions of increasing diversions from the two major sources of Aral Sea water, was more or less known in the absence of any intervention to stop or limit the diversions. Articles about the risks of degradation appeared in Soviet journals, at least from the 1960s, and were translated into other languages. However, even the most ardent advocates of preserving the Aral underestimated the range, rate of change, and intensity of the degradation that subsequently transpired.

There have been, and continue to be, decision makers who feel that the Aral Sea is of little intrinsic value to society. Thus, regardless of paying verbal homage to saving it, they do not care about its ultimate demise. Yet another group of people have supported the diversion of river water from the Amudarya and Syrdarya, knowing that such diversions were drawing down the level of the Sea. However, they had been led to believe that the Siberian rivers diversion project would eventually be approved, bringing water to Central Asia and possibly to the Aral Sea. Central Asians continue to believe that Russia's Siberian river water is owed to them by Russian leaders, because of their sacrifices to the Soviet Union in previous decades at the behest of the Soviet government to foster the all-out production of cotton for Russian textile factories. In fact, attempts are under way today to revive these diversion schemes, as well as to propose newer ones.

Fig. 4.3 The Aral Sea region

Thus, much is already known about the decline in the level of the Aral Sea: when it began, why it happened, who benefited and who suffered as a result of the decline, what actions were proposed to deal with the declining levels and with the deteriorating circum-Aral human health and environmental conditions, and so forth.

Although all this is known with some degree of certainty, it is important to note that this particular environmental change (slow onset, low-grade, long-term, and cumulative decline in the level of the Aral Sea) is but one of a large family of such changes taking place in the Aral Sea basin. Although the primary focus of attention has been on the declining level of the Sea, in part because that change is highly visible (especially from space), it is but one creeping change in the basin to occur during the past half-century.

Creeping environmental problems in the Aral basin include the decline of the level of the Sea, reduced inflow to the Sea from the Amudarya and Syrdarya, monocropping, declining water quality, and adverse health effects. Because of the low-grade but cumulative nature of these problems, high-level policy makers, as well as low-level decision makers, have apparently had difficulties in identifying them as problems and then, once identified as such, in coping with them. As with other Caps elsewhere, it is often difficult to identify thresholds of change that could serve to catalyse action to arrest environmental degradation. Water quality degrades slowly over time. Vegetative cover and human health also degrade slowly over time. As for streamflow, there were readily identifiable thresholds at which point all could see that a major change in the Aral Sea was near: for example, in the late 1970s when the Syrdarya's waters failed to reach the Sea. And, for a few years in the 1980s, the mighty Amudarya's water also failed to reach the Sea for the first time in recent history.

As a result of the lack of understanding of how societies can or should address such insidious environmental changes, there has been a tendency in the Aral Sea basin to "muddle through" with respect to the decision-making process. Only when a crisis has been perceived by a policy-making body has action been taken, usually in the form of a costly and rapid mobilization of human and financial resources. Such actions usually address the symptoms of the problem and not its root causes. As noted earlier, although the "muddling through/crisis response" paradigm may work in the richer industrialized countries, the value of the paradigm is much more questionable in countries with scarce resources such as those in Central Asia. Because they lack the resources needed to respond at all to such crises, they are forced to seek, if not rely on, assistance from donor countries and organizations. If such assistance is not forthcoming, the downward spiral of degradation continues.

Examples of CEP in the Aral Sea basin

The following brief examples of CEP are drawn from the Aral basin. They are meant to be suggestive, not to be an exhaustive list of creeping environmental changes in this Central Asian basin. With glasnost in the mid-1980s and the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, interest in the region has grown sharply, in part for environmental reasons, but more so for geopolitical reasons (e.g. Glantz et al., 1993; Rashid, 1994; Eickelman, 1993).

Expansion of cotton acreage

The desire to expand cotton production onto desert land increased the dependence of Central Asian republics on irrigation and mono cropping. Monocropping has adverse impacts on soil conditions, which prompts increasing dependence on mechanization, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Socio-economically, this is also risky in the sense that a regional economy based on a single crop is highly vulnerable to the variability of climate (especially climatic extremes) as well as to the whims of the market-place.

The demands of cotton production for irrigation water are high, at one time consuming over 50 per cent of agricultural water use in the region. Increased demands were met by increasing diversions from the Amudarya and the Syrdarya (fig. 4.4). Tables 4.1 and 4.2 show, respectively, the land under irrigation in three republics between 1950 and 1986, and the expansion of cotton acreage in Central Asia between 1940 and 1986. The data provided in these tables cover the post-World War II period of expansion of irrigation up to 1986, the year that the Aral crisis was first exposed to the world. Each year additional amounts of water were required for the new fields and for the flushing of salts from the old ones, suffering from increasingly salinized soils. In addition, starting in 1954 with the construction of the Karakum Canal in Turkmenistan, large amounts of water were diverted from the Amudarya to irrigate fields in that republic. The current estimate of withdrawals for the Karakum Canal from the Amudarya is about 15-20 km3 per year (or 23-30 per cent of flow).

Fig. 4.4 Irrigated area in the Aral Sea basin, 1910-1990, and river inflow to the Aral Sea and surface area of the Aral Sea, 1910-1993 (Source: Micklin and Williams, 1996)

Table 4.1 Land under irritations, 1950-1986 (thousand hectares)





































Source: Critchlow (1991, p. 63).

The pie chart in figure 4.5 depicts the changes, since 1986, in the proportion of land (and therefore water for irrigation) devoted to cotton, grains, and fodder crops (such as alfalfa) and other crops in Uzbekistan.

Table 4.2 Cotton sowings, 1940-1986 (million hectares)








Increase, 1940-1986(%)

























Source: Critchlow (1991, p. 64).

a. Average per year for this period.

Fig. 4.5 The composition of irrigated crops in Uzbekistan (as a percentage of total crop area) (Source: UNDP, 1995)

Sealevel decline

The decline in the level of the Aral Sea has received considerable political attention both domestically and internationally. It is a highly noticeable environmental change, visible directly on the ground as well as from space. Water diversions from the two main regional rivers robbed the sea and deltas of annual freshwater replenishment. The rate of decline of the Sea can be seen in figure 4.6 (Micklin and Williams, 1996). Note also that declining levels were accompanied by an even more rapid decline in the volume of the Sea and by an increase in salinity.

It was not until the mid-1980s and glasnost that the Aral Sea situation took on the aura of an environmental catastrophe to many foreign observers. Although it was newly exposed to the international media, and discussed with a new openness in the Soviet Union, it was, as suggested earlier, a known crisis situation that "crept up" on policy makers over a period of 30 years!

Fig. 4.6 Levels of the Aral Sea, 1960-2000 (Source: Micklin and Williams, 1996)

Related to declining sealevel and reduced sea surface area is the increase in the number and frequency of dust storms. In the mid-1970s, dust storms captured the attention of Soviet policy makers when cosmonauts, during one of their space missions, photographed major dust storms in the receding shoreline in the south-eastern part of the Aral Sea. Exposed seabed enabled winds to pick up dust laden with a variety of chemicals and carry it hundreds of kilometres from the original site. Farms downwind of these storms became covered with these dry depositions, and farmers claimed that the productivity of their land, as well as their health, were being adversely affected. Since then, the number and intensity of these dust storms along the continually newly exposed dry seabed have apparently increased. In fact, it was the appearance of major dust storms that exposed to Soviet leaders and the rest of the world the extent of human mismanagement of Central Asian rivers' waters.

Decreasing flows of the Amudarya and Syrdarya into the Aral Sea

The Amudarya supplies about 70 per cent of the water to the Aral Sea, more than twice the flow of the second major river in the region, the Syrdarya. From the early 1960s, the decline in Syrdarya flow was noticed, and by the late 1970s no Syrdarya water reached the Sea. As for the Amudarya, a sizeable amount of water is diverted from the river to the Karakum Canal (later the Lenin Canal and, today, the Niyazov Canal). The total amount diverted to this canal has been estimated at 15-20 km3 per year, with diversions having increased at various stages of its completion. In the 1980s, there were a few years when virtually no Amudarya flow reached the Aral Sea. In recent years, however, as the result of favourable snowpack in the Pamir Mountains where the river has its origins, water has been reaching the Sea. The last leg of the Karakum Canal is completed, which will likely translate into the diversion of additional Amudarya water to the canal's extension to south-western Turkmenistan.

Before the rapid expansion of irrigated cotton production began in the 1960s in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, some Soviet scientists sought to alert their government to the possibility of a decline in sealevel decades into the future, as large volumes of water became increasingly diverted from the two major regional rivers that had historically determined the Sea's level.

Declining quality in the rivers and in the Aral Sea

As fields were continually irrigated on a large scale, soil fertility rapidly declined. This prompted attempts to use increasing amounts of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to maintain, if not expand, cotton productivity and production. Many of these chemicals found their way through the return flow to the rivers, as well as to the groundwater. In addition, to avoid (or really delay) the worsening of the salinization of soils, increasing amounts of water had to be used to flush the land of salts and other compounds. Much of this drainage water was returned to the rivers and, eventually, to the Sea. Drainage canals were eventually constructed to divert some of the contaminated water away from the Sea and into Lake Sarakamysh, a regional desert depression.

Degradation of the deltaic ecosystems

As another example of the ecological consequences of reduced streamflow into the sea, the degradation of the highly productive Amudarya and Syrdarya deltaic regions has become increasingly pronounced during the past 30 years (Smith, 1994). One of the consequences of the desiccation of the delta region has been the diminution of vegetative cover, a loss that destroyed habitats for wildlife and migratory birds. Frederick (1991, p. 12) highlighted the economic importance of the deltas in the recent past, noting that they provided a "feeding base for livestock, a source of reeds for industry, spawning grounds for fish, and sites of commercial hunting and trapping." Each of these delta-related ecological and societal processes has either been sharply curtailed or ended (Novikova, 1998).

Wildlife disappeared from around the delta and forests became decimated as the soils dried out or became salinized or waterlogged, depending on local soil conditions. Kuznetsov (1992, p. 324) supported this view of the early observation of adverse impacts, when he wrote that

the degradation of wetland soils in the deltas was noted quite clearly as early as the second half of the 1960s. For the preservation of the most fertile soils of the Amudarya delta, it was proposed that they be artificially irrigated, for which it was recommended that 3.0-3.5 km3/year of river water be used. However, professional water managers and land reclamation specialists paid no heed to this recommendation, nor to many others.

Today, political interest in the Aral Sea appears to have been reduced to the deltas of the Amudarya and Syrdarya. Supported by recommendations from the World Bank, Uzbek and Kazak leaders have proposed to rejuvenate deltaic ecosystems, abandoning the more ambitious schemes designed to save the entire Aral Sea, including the deltas.

Destruction of fish populations in the Aral Sea

With declining river water quality came a decline in the quality of Aral Sea water. At a 1977 Soviet conference on the environmental impact of a drop in the level of the Aral Sea, a paper prepared by two Uzbek republic scientists reported a sharp reduction in fish landings (Gorodetskaya and Kes, 1978). They suggested that a demise of the commercial fishery would likely occur because of the desiccation of the Sea's fish spawning grounds. Borovsky (1980) had also suggested that the depletion of the Aral Sea fisheries would be one of the first consequences of declining sealevels. Reteyum (1991, p. 3) wrote that "in 1965, the Council of Ministers of the USSR passed a special resolution, On Measures to Preserve the Fishery Importance of the Aral Sea." He cited this as one of the examples to support his belief that signs of deterioration in the Aral basin were seen as early as the mid-1960s.

The sharp decline in fish landings provided a visible threshold for decision makers to see that their inaction with regard to declining sealevel and water quality had its adverse biological consequences. By the late 1970s, it was quite clear that the Aral Sea fisheries were in an irreversible decline. A once-thriving fishing industry had become adversely affected by increasing amounts of pollutants entering the Sea by way of the river. The salinity of Aral Sea water increased to such an extent that several areas had the same salinity as the open ocean.

Today, no fish are caught commercially in the Sea; the Aral Sea ports of Muynak and Aralsk are now several tens of kilometres from the receding shoreline; and into the early 1990s fish had been shipped in from distant locations (the Arctic, the Baltic, the Pacific) for processing. The loss of fish productivity sparked a collapse of the industry and employment in this sector. In 1960, 43,430 metric tons of fish were caught in the Sea, dropping to 17,400 tons in 1970, to zero tons in 1980, and remaining there until now (Létolle and Mainguet, 1993, p. 182).

Increases in human diseases

The consequences of the dependence of several Central Asian republics on cotton monoculture not only adversely affected the physical environment by upsetting ecological balances in many parts of the Aral basin, but have also had a devastating impact on human health. Documented regional effects have only recently been exposed to the public: high infant mortality and morbidity rates, a sharp increase in oesophageal cancers directly attributable to "poisoned" water resources, gastro-intestinal problems, typhoid, high rates of congenital deformation, outbreaks of viral hepatitis, the contamination of mothers' milk, and a life expectancy in some areas about 20 years less than for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in general. Groundwater supplies, too, have been contaminated as a result of the widespread and wanton use of chemicals on irrigated cotton fields. By all statistical measures, the region's human health profile fares poorly in comparison with the rest of the CIS (Feshbach and Friendly, 1992; Ellis, 1990). Adverse impacts of all-out cotton production on health have been compounded by the absolute dearth of medical and health facilities in the Aral basin. In addition, water treatment facilities in the region are wholly inadequate (and in many areas non-existent), necessitating the use for domestic purposes of untreated surface waters from the rivers, irrigation canals, and drainage ditches.

Systematic research on public health in the Aral Sea basin began in the mid-1970s. From that time, the negative dynamics of deteriorating public health conditions in the region were observed. Had such research been systematically undertaken earlier, these adverse public health conditions would have been identified by the end of the 1960s, and would probably have been linked to the presence of pesticides (Elpiner, 1990, 1998). In addition, Kuznetsov (1992, p. 327) noted that "unfortunately, secrecy over an entire series of research results in the 1970s, especially medical-epidemiological data, precluded their publication at that time and the predictions associated with them did not become available to the public in time."

By way of illustration, one typical, tragic situation deserves mention, namely, the condition of the Karakalpak, the Turkic-speaking people of autonomous Karakalpakstan in north-west Uzbekistan. More than 1 million people have been affected:

There is a shortage of clean water, and there is not enough even for drinking. In several parts of the region the consumption of water per person per day is about 5 liters, compared to an average of 200 to 300 liters. The mineralization (salt content) of this water stands at 2 to 4 grams per liter, and the bacteria content exceeds the maximum permissible concentration by 5 to 10 times. Through the dispensary system the Ministry of Health discovered a truly tragic picture: 60 percent of those examined - children and adults have serious health problems; 80 percent of pregnant women suffer from anemia; intestinal infections are widespread; the infant mortality rate is much higher than national average figures and in several regions reaches 82 in 1000 newborns. Diseases never before seen here are appearing, for example gallstones and kidney stones. (Rudenko, 1989, p. 44)

In the absence of any major improvement in regional health care or in detoxifying water and land resources in the Aral basin, the only way out for regional inhabitants, other than perpetuating the status quo, has been emigration. However, despite previous Soviet plans to encourage those most directly and most negatively affected (the people of Karakalpakstan) to migrate to areas outside Central Asia, few have opted to leave their homeland. Thus, with few meaningful actions to improve the health of the people or the environment in the Aral basin, the total sum of misery can only increase, because the region boasts an extremely high population growth rate ranging from 2.6 to 3.2 per cent. At such growth rates, a doubling of the present-day regional population of over 30 million to 60 million is expected in the early decades of the twenty-first century. The UN Development Programme is actively seeking to address some of the social issues that constrain capacity-building, which is so necessary for the long-term "sustainable use of water and land resources in the basin" (UNDP, 1996).

Concluding comments and a call for research

Clearly, we already possess a considerable amount of information about the Aral Sea basin and the various physical processes of environmental change and degradation. Signs of change were appearing everywhere throughout the first 20 years of the Aral Sea problem (1960-1980): wind erosion, salt-laden dust storms, destroyed fish spawning grounds, the collapse of the fisheries, secondary salinization, increased salinity of Sea water, waterlogging, disruption of navigation, the likely division of the Sea into separate parts, the need for extra-basin water resources to stabilize the Sea level, the loss of wildlife in the littoral areas, the large reduction of streamflow from the two main tributaries, a change in the regional climate, the disappearance of pasturelands, and so forth. Each one of these adverse environmental changes was mentioned in Soviet scientific literature at some point in the 1960s and 1970s.

It would be very instructive for scientific and societal reasons to focus on identifying and analysing various thresholds for awareness of and responses to each of these creeping environmental changes. The findings of such research can be used to aid national and international decision makers to develop more effective coping mechanisms for existing Caps to avert the development of future Caps in the region. Those findings can be used to improve political as well as societal responses to Caps not only in the Aral basin but elsewhere on the globe. One such effort of limited scope is presently under way (Glantz, 1998), but a larger, more comprehensive, and systematic effort is needed so that societies can identify and develop more effective response mechanisms to the creeping environmental changes that surround us.


The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


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