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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

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 (L├ętolle 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).