The Aral Sea Disaster: History, Current Issues and Future
Friday, 04 June 2021
The Aral Sea, formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, is located among the deserts of Central Asia. Over the past 10 millennia, it has repeatedly filled and dried, owing both to natural and human forces.
The most recent desiccation and consequent salinization started in the early 1960s, overwhelmingly as the result of an unsustainable expansion of irrigation that drained its two tributary rivers, thus cutting off the flow of water into the sea.
Historically, due to its dry and harsh climate, the central element of the survival of any civilization in the territory of current Uzbekistan was access to water resources. Great cities were erected along the banks of major rivers: Samarkand and Bukhara on the Zarafshan river; Urgench and Khiva on the Amu Darya river. The ruling authorities of these civilizations played a central role in water governance, regulating it at the highest level. Each governor had a deputy, responsible for water matters. Water played a crucial role in securing peace and stability in the region.
While these old civilizations were located at the crossroads of the Great Silk road, the production of food sufficient for their livelihood remained key to their stability and prosperity.
Public water management in Uzbekistan, during the Former Soviet Union (FSU), was a critical part of the overall state policy aimed at increasing agricultural production, specifically of cotton. Resources, such as water, were part of the input system controlled by the government. The consumers, i.e. large collective farms, utilized all available resources provided by the state for growing cotton on the collective land with collective responsibility.
Above the farm level, planning, transportation, and water delivery was in the hands of strong and hierarchical water management organizations (WMO’s), which supplied the water up to the borders of the collectives. Each farm would receive water from a few central water delivery points assigned to the WMO staff. Internally, collective farms had their own water management system, composed of trained water professionals.
Current issues: The drying-up of the world’s fourth largest lake created 5-million-hectares of new desert — the AralKum. Dust and salt storms from the dried bed of the sea impacts both irrigated lands and the health of the populace: these led to salinization, land and water degradation, floral and faunal biodiversity losses, degradation of biotic communities around the delta, and climate change around the former shoreline. These dramatic developments further resulted in: (i) an increase in the health problems of the population along with declining living conditions, (ii) a degradation of the local economy and livelihood opportunities (fishing, hunting, short term tourism), (iii) a loss of cultural heritage for the local population, and (iv) increased environmental migration (internal and external).
The expansion of intensive and wasteful irrigated farming during the Soviet period was the main cause of the drying-up of the Aral Sea. Intensive irrigation continues as 90 percent of the total water withdrawal in Central Asia (CA) is for irrigated agriculture. Using irrigation water in agriculture plays a key role in the economy of the five CA countries as the agricultural sector contributes from 10 to 45 percent of GDP and employs 20 to 50 percent of the rural population of riparian states.
The way forward: Since 2016, the Government of Uzbekistan (GovUz) initiated a wide range of economic, social, and political changes. The Aral-sea disaster became a prime example demonstrating the necessity of developing sustainable economic and environmental policies. Several policy papers and legislative documents have been ratified to preserve the regional biological diversity, i.e. its unique fauna (including endangered species of animals, birds and others).
Recently, in July 2020 GovUz approved the Water Sector Development Strategy 2020-2030. GovUz’s recent economic reforms have created more favourable conditions for the private financing of the water sector, and stimulated more private engagement in the operation, maintenance, and construction of the water infrastructure.
The GovUz also mobilized global and regional support to tackle the consequences of the Aral sea disaster. Currently, international organizations such as the EU, EBRD, UNDP, USAID, and the Islamic bank of development are prioritising the improvement of the socio-economic and environmental situation in the Aral sea zone, in an attempt to find solutions.
During the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations, The President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed a resolution to designate the Aral Sea a Zone of Environmental Innovations and Technologies. The General Assembly ratified the resolution on 18 May 2021. This creates an opportunity to build regional and national policy coherence and foster risk-informed policy and decision-making.
The resolution’s ratification is a milestone which will allow consolidating efforts to overcome the negative consequences of the environmental disaster in the Aral Sea by stimulating interdisciplinary research, innovation, the creation of new technologies and methods.
The resolution will also constitute an effective mechanism for the implementation of the major post-2015 intergovernmental agreements to which Uzbekistan pledged to commit, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction in the Aral Sea Basin, thereby bringing the country closer to the ‘green economy’. It will also lead to closer alignment with the EU’s Green Deal.
In conclusion: The Aral Sea has become a symbol of water Armageddon, made by humans. Although in many parts of the world dramatic results of water resource misuse have been equally tragic, the Aral Sea basin has become a classic example of the failure of water policies in the Former Soviet Union. It is important to repair and preserve what is left of the deltas of the two tributary rivers, the Syrdarya and Amudarya, given their great ecological and economic value, and their status as biological refugia for species endemic to the Aral Sea.
The global and regional cooperation will further improve the thrust for finding potential solutions and enhance the socio-economic and environmental situation in the region, in the process boosting the livelihood of the most affected, while leaving no one behind.