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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 folder7. Voices from the region
View the documentA word on Aral
View the documentThe role of academic research in solving the ecological problems of the Aral Sea region
View the documentReferences
View the documentIranian strategies in Central Asia

A word on Aral

O. Abdirakhmanov

I live in the centre of the Aral region's environmental catastrophe. My people -the people of Karakalpakstan - have no other Motherland than the Aral region; 1.3 million people now live in the Karakalpak Republic. More than 10 million people now live in the ecological disaster zone of the Aral Sea region, as was pointed out in a summary document of a meeting of presidents of Central Asian republics on 3 March 1995. The Aral today is not just a local disaster.

Residents of the Aral region welcome the words of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who constantly draw attention to this global problem. As a result of their initiative, the Aral problem has become an integral part of the state politics of the five newly independent states.

The scope of the Aral disaster can be illustrated with the following statistics:

· of the initial surface area of the Aral Sea itself - 66,458 km2 slightly more than half remained in the early 1990s;

· of the former volume of water -1,022 km3 - only about one-third remained;

· the salt content of the water increased from 10 ppm to 31 ppm;

· the temperature change during the summer months has increased by 2 degrees;

· each hectare of land in the Aral disaster region has 500-700 kg of salt dust that has fallen on it as a result of more frequent and severe dust storms on the newly exposed Aral seabed.

(These data were provided by the Karakalpak Department of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences.)

At present over 90 per cent of Karakalpak women of child-bearing age suffer from anaemia and/or low blood pressure. The average infant mortality rate in January and February 1995 was 46 per 1,000 infants under the age of one year. Average life expectancy has been constantly falling.

The drying out of the Aral Sea has taken place in the course of only one human generation, i.e. during a 25-year period, and that cannot but be reflected in both the physical and the spiritual worlds of its people. The rate of population growth has stayed the same, but this is the result of the higher than average birth-rate, and there are ghost "auls," or villages, deserted by the population. For example, the village of Ourga had more than 10,000 people living there in 196O, but within a period of five to six years there was not a single person left in the village. All of them had been made to move to the more welcoming (from an environmental standpoint) Kungrad Region. Only a few people knew about this. Back in 1965, when a Communist Party Central Committee Decree was issued on land use and on establishing the USSR Ministry for Water (Minvodhoz), it was impossible to discuss it. The policies for the development of new areas and for changing the direction of flow of rivers were the guiding principle for the state industrial and agricultural systems in the period of totalitarian rule. And at the time people believed in a bright future. When that "bright future" dissolved with the disintegration of the USSR, the indigenous people of the Aral region seemed to have no hope left concerning the Sea's preservation or a better future. Some people had the means to move to prosperous places. Today, the notion of "environmental refugees" appears in the media. Those who had nowhere else to go remained in the land of their ancestors.

Now, however, the people of the Aral region can begin to hope for rescue, thanks to the increase in activity in international circles, due in large measure to the United Nations and especially to the support from international organizations in the form of humanitarian assistance. We are grateful for their help and, together with them, we have come to realize that it is not necessary for us to live the life of a beggar in the world community. As well as humanitarian help, we need investment in our local industries. Today, there are only six joint enterprises in Karakalpakstan, of which only two are in operation, both of them small scale. We need to develop many more such enterprises.

Our oversights are probably as much to blame for this situation, the oversights of activists in the cultural sphere such as writers, journalists, and film-makers. It was perhaps our attempts to draw attention to the rapidly increasing scale of the Aral region's ecological catastrophe that frightened the international community, especially businessmen. This may explain why bigger enterprises are being established far from the Aral region.

Yes, we in Central Asia in general, and in the Karakalpak Republic in particular, have lived at some distance from world civilization. Yes, we have remained in an environmental disaster zone with a backward economy. Yes, our comprehension of the world at large has increased. Yes, we have new state borders following independence. But, we do live in a common world after all, and concern about the Aral ecological disaster zone has been broadening. The appearance of the newly created Aralkum (Aral desert), together with the ancient great deserts of Central Asia - Karakum, Kyzylkom, and Ourst Ourt - could have dangerous regional if not international consequences.

I would like to suggest the following:

1. that all the states of the region set free the region's two great rivers, the Amudarya and the Syrdarya, and readjust their agricultural activities in order to save water resources; it is necessary in planning water consumption to take into consideration the possible needs of the Aral Sea and its surrounding areas;

2. the cooperation of regional states' activities in solving the ecological, economic, and legal problems of the Aral ecological disaster zone, relying when necessary on the help of independent experts from the United Nations and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The role of academic research in solving the ecological problems of the Aral Sea region

U. M. Sultangazin

I will discuss three key ecological problems for the Aral Sea basin:

1. the rationalization of water use,
2. the need to improve water quality,
3. the need to protect and re-create valuable landscapes and ecosystems.

I will show through these examples how wide-ranging data systems and extensive academic research can play an important role in solving these problems.

The National Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan has been working on the development of a complex programme for the improvement of the ecological situation in the territory of Kazakhstan. In this programme, most attention is centred on the ecological crisis in the Aral and Caspian Sea regions and the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, as is introduced by Tsukatani and Sultangazin (1996). About 20 research institutions of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences have been involved in the development of this programme. I would like to concentrate on the most significant aspects of this programme.

The rationalization of water use

The first problem is the rationalization of water use based on the comprehensive analysis of regional social and ecological factors. Unfortunately, during the Soviet period, economic decisions were often made without taking into consideration the importance of protecting the environment and the social and economic welfare of the regions involved. For example, a root cause of the "Aral Sea Problem" was the short-sighted economic view of those involved in the development and management of extensive irrigation projects. Driven by the potential for high profit, the environmental consequences of irrigation development were often ignored. This situation still exists in some of the Central Asian republics situated in the upper regions of the Syrdarya watershed. The task of the scientists is to reveal the underlying processes of agricultural and economic development and its impacts and to give qualitative or quantitative forecasts of the consequences of large projects.

The five countries of Central Asia have adopted a plan to solve the ecological problems of the Aral Sea and its adjacent regions. In order to realize this plan it is necessary first of all to determine the optimal distribution of water resources among industries. For this task, we will require information on the economic framework of the republics, the priorities of various industries, population projections, regional geographical information systems (GIS), and watershed management data. We will then be able to use some systems analysis methods to address the problem of the optimal distribution of water resources. Such an approach was introduced in the paper by Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995), which deals with the distribution of water resources in the Syrdarya basin.

The information system for environmental control comprises three levels: first, monitoring and processing; second, modelling of the environment-economic system; third, environmental control. The scheme for the optimal control of industries in the Syrdarya basin takes into consideration the ecological interests of the Aral Sea. The main constraint is the request for a minimum volume of inflow to the Aral Sea. Other constraints are imposed by the level of technology available to the agricultural sector.

The need to improve water quality

The second problem is how to improve water quality by means of sewage treatment and disposal, and the limitation of waste discharges and of mineral fertilizer use. The uncontrolled use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides has a negative impact on the environment and especially on human health. In the growing season, pollution of Syrdarya's waters by pesticides reaches 12 MPC (maximum permissible concentration); for nitrates it amounts to 46 MPC. Mineralization of water in the Syrdarya (previously fresh) reached 3g/litre, which is 10 times the recommended health standard.

In view of these conditions, the evaluation and control of environmental quality and economic activities in this area should be included in the emergency programmes of the region's policy makers. It has become important to determine priorities for regional environmental policies and to reform the structure of agriculture. Environmental systems are generally considered as multi-objective systems. Optimal standards for environmental quality and economic activities include many conflicting goals. In Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995) some mathematical models were constructed for the evaluation and management of regional environmental systems. Waste disposal planning is defined at two levels in our models.

The need to protect and re-create landscapes and ecosystems

The degradation of vegetation is occurring over practically the whole of the Aral Sea basin. This is primarily caused by the salinization of soils, resulting from irrigation and salt-dust storms. The number of salt-dust storms has increased with alarming frequency. At present the area of dried seabed is 36,000 km2 and it is located mostly along the eastern part of the Sea. Every year about 150,000 metric tons of dust and salt are lifted into the atmosphere. If we don't stop this process in future, then the active desertification of adjacent territories and the merging of the newly created Aral desert (the Aralkum) with the Karakum and other deserts in the region may lead to the creation of a new desert of Saharan proportions at the centre of the Euro-Asian continent, which can have only negative consequences. Therefore, first of all it is necessary to create artificial landscape ecosystems in the river deltas and in the dried-up bottom of the Aral Sea. Some results of scientific investigations of phytomelioration prepared by the Academy of Sciences can be used for the creation of artificial ecosystems.

The Kazakh Academy of Sciences has made considerable strides toward solving the problems of natural resource usage in the republic. The research and development activities of a number of institutes during the past 10 years have covered a wide scientific spectrum of the dynamically changing nature of Kazakhstan. For example, the Institute of Hydrology and Hydrophysics is monitoring and investigating the state and environmental condition of groundwater resources in the territory of the republic. The Institute of Geography is investigating the hydro-ecological stability of the Aral and the Caspian Sea basins and is studying the anthropogenic influences on deserts and other geosystems. The Institute of Soil Sciences is investigating the ecological disturbance to soils in southern Kazakhstan (in the valleys of the Syrdarya, Chu, Ili, Talas, Karatal, etc.) and in the region of the Aral Sea, and disturbances on the slopes of Kazakhstan's Tien Shan mountain range. The Institute of Botany is developing phytomeliorative for the arid areas of the exposed seabed and is conducting investigations into the productivity of pastures and into the biology and ecology of plants in the Aral region. It is also developing maps of plants and of desertification for the territory of Kazakhstan. The Institute of Zoology is studying technogenic factors and agricultural activity that adversely influence the flora and fauna of the republic. At the Institute of Zoology, the state of ecosystems has been analysed, based on surveys of the whole of Kazakhstan. This research has shown that the coastal regions of the Aral and the Caspian Seas are in fact in a state of total degradation.

In spite of rich data obtained by the various institutes of the Academy of Sciences, it is still difficult to obtain an accurate and comprehensive representation of the state of the national environment and the trends of change. Ground-level monitoring is carried out in only a limited number of areas and the extrapolation to other regions is often approximate. Therefore, the application of remote sensing may be very useful for future research and monitoring of environmental changes in Kazakhstan. In applying remote sensing, investigations carried out through test sites by the institutes will be of great importance when deciphering aerospace imagery. The system of environmental monitoring of the territory of Kazakhstan is projected as a set of instruments oriented to resolving existing problems. The system will be developed and new problems will be included in the package. For example, for the atmosphere the following very important problems can be highlighted:

· dust storms in the Aral Sea region, when millions of tons of salt are spread over a large area causing desertification;

· gaseous emissions as a result of accidental breaks in pipes;

· the state of snow cover and icecaps in the Pamir Heights and Tien Shan mountains.

· the transfer of water vapour to Central Asia from other regions.

Concrete tasks for other media will also be developed. Work on complex analyses, using mathematical models, is under way. Information obtained at three levels (space - air - ground) passes through the following stages: data acquisition, transmission, and reception, primary data processing, archiving, and the proposal of solutions to applied problems. The project envisages accomplishing all of the stages. Observations from space will be provided by satellites. Aerial observations are to be carried out on flying laboratories in aircraft. Surface-based observations will be conducted primarily on the testing ground in the Priaralie (the area immediately adjacent to the Aral Sea) and in the neighbouring regions of Almaty.

Some recommendations

First, a geographical information system should be created for the optimal control of the distribution of water resources and of waste disposal, taking into consideration the social and economic interests of the republics in the Aral Sea basin. This can be achieved through the application of the information system described by Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995), and by mathematical models of the environment and economy.

Secondly, in order to undertake research into global environmental problems of desertification and global warming of the atmosphere and to evaluate the regional environmental situation, it would be valuable to establish an International Centre for Central Asian Ecology in Almaty..


Sultangazin, U. M. and T. Tsukatani.. 1995. Modeling of the Kazakhstan Economy and Environment. Discussion Paper No. 416. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto University.

Tsukatani, T. and U. M. Sultangazin. 1996. "Current economy and environment of Kazakhstan in 1995." Japanese Slavic and East European Studies 16, pp. 95-106.

Iranian strategies in Central Asia

Modjtaba Sadria

In my discussion, I do not use the term "Central Asian republics" as it is usually used in the strict geographical meaning; I include Azerbaijan as a Central Asian republic.

With all its ups and downs, one can divide the interaction between Iran and Central Asia in the modern era into three periods.

The first period began in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued until the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the founding of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. In this period, the Russian state was continuously expanding its influence in Central Asia, while the inclusion of Iran in the power politics of European powers, including Russia, sometimes went as far as the partition of Iran itself.

During this period, one can say that Iran was acting primarily on a defensive basis, and it did not have many grandiose designs on Central Asia.

The second period began with the Soviet Union's integration into its territory of the whole of Central Asia, sealing off its borders. At that time Iran was entering into a process of modernization in which the creation of a centralized bureaucracy and a national identity occurred in parallel with the weakening of the autonomy of ethnic identities in Iran (i.e. Azeris and Turkmens). During this period of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran was integrated into the world system mainly as part of first British and then American strategies of containment of the Soviet Union. This essentially sealed off its borders with the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. With a few nuances, Iranian attitudes toward the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union were the same as Iranian attitudes toward the Soviet Union in general. The fear of the rapid growth of military capabilities of the Soviet Union after World War II was another factor that accounted for the absence of cross-border contacts. In this second period, Iran did not have its own Central Asian strategy, although it sometimes had its own Soviet policy. Basically, its position and its role were determined through its integration into the Western political and military strategies regarding the Soviet Union.

The third period started with the foundation of the Islamic republic in Iran. In a simplified way, one can further divide relations between Iran and Central Asia since the birth of the Islamic republic into two periods. The first period was from 1979 to 1988, during which the new republic was confronted with the task of developing the institutions it dealt with in the Iran-Iraq war which, one can argue, had contradictory impacts on the new republic. On the one hand, a long and costly eight-year war accelerated, according to some points of view, the creation and consolidation of new institutions for the Islamic republic. On the other hand, besides its rhetoric, the war had very pragmatic managerial requirements. Ideologies and beliefs can influence the way that these managerial and pragmatic tasks are viewed but cannot replace them. Fighting the war brought to the attention of the new leaders in a more urgent way the necessity of taking into consideration the daily tasks of the state while deepening their awareness of world-scale power relationships as well as geo-strategic considerations.

Fighting the war under multilateral pressures from Western powers, and with access to limited resources, taught the leaders of the Islamic republic to give much more weight to the importance of South-South trade relations. One could say that this element was under consideration by some of the Islamic republic's planners, but the realities of the war and the context in which it was being carried out gave the new state a more realistic view of international relations. Besides the acceptance in principle of the necessity of strengthening South-South relations, there was a practical need to find whatever would make for broader interaction. One can say, paradoxically, that the war with Iraq activated a process of understanding the capacities that Southern countries can optimize in South-South relationships. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Gorbachev's perestroika was already in crisis. Very soon thereafter, the disintegration of the Soviet Union took place. For the first time in the modern era, an independent Iranian state found itself with political, economic, and cultural options toward the Central Asian republics, which had become politically independent entities both unexpectedly and rapidly.

It is necessary to analyse Iran's misunderstandings and wrong political choices since 1989 in relation to the Central Asian republics. What seems to be more important, though, is not only identifying those wrong political choices, but rather to see the growing trends coming out of Iran. These growing trends can be characterized as follows: consciousness by Iranian decision makers of the complexities of the reality in the Central Asian republics - their approach has become much more nuanced, and much more tempered; consciousness that the outcome of political processes in the Central Asian republics is primarily the result of the activities of political forces within those countries; awareness that the Iranian state must interact primarily with its counterparts, i.e. each state in Central Asia, and that these interactions can last only if mutual benefits derive from them (part of which involves Iran playing a stabilizing role); recognition that the quality of the bilateral relations with each of the republics will create the foundation of Iran's interactions with the whole of Central Asia; acknowledgement that the Iranian presence in Central Asia does not have to be exclusive - other countries with historical relations and affinities towards Central Asia can be present along with Iran. The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which brings together Turkey and Pakistan with Iran for broader regional interactions with the Central Asian republics, is the result from the Iranian perspective of the synthesis of these points.

But Iran, like Turkey, has other frameworks besides the ECO for interaction with the Central Asian republics. The border between Iran and Turkmenistan and the border between Iran and Azerbaijan create the basis for bilateral relations. As important is the fact that countries bordering the Caspian Sea share a natural geographical framework for interactions between Iran and most of the Central Asian republics. Awareness of the massive presence of Russia in the Caspian Sea region constitutes another aspect of Iranian strategies. The accumulated effects of these diversified, but complementary, strategies lead the observer to notice that the growing trend of Iranian strategies towards Central Asia lies increasingly in activating South-South relations among states that face more or less the same kinds of political, economic, and social challenges.