Internal Affairs / Foreign Relations / Kazakhstan / Kyrgyzstan / Tajikistan / Turkmenistan / Uzbekistan

Why it’s so important to save Aral Sea

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7-08-2018, 08:19
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... And what is important: the horrific consequences of human activities, harmful to the Aral Sea, and continuing despite all the efforts to this day, one way or another will impact all the states within Central Asia without exception. Already millions of adults and children are suffering, as before the Aral Sea is spoken of as a glorious past, as a fairy tale that has come to an end prematurely and tragically, but still there is hope. Hope that the five countries of the region will take control of the situation once and for all -- they will sit at the negotiating table and, throwing back its internal, personal interests and ambitions, will unite in saving the common future for everyone...

Why it’s so important to save Aral Sea

Will the Aral Sea become as deep and boundless as before? Will it change the bitter status of “the world's first sea, destroyed by man” to “the first sea restored by man” after a seemingly complete and irrevocable demise?

The answers to all these questions have been worrying environmentalists for several years. The history of the Aral Sea is a history of mistakes and tragic distortions. It’s a terrible betrayal inflicted on nature, however, people, first of all, are affected by this tragedy -- millions of people, and not only by the inhabitants of the Aral Sea. The tragedy of the Aral Sea bears harm and disease to all mankind.

From the surface of salt marshes, which occupy huge areas of the dried bottom of the Aral Sea, about 75 million tonnes of toxic salt is annually released into the atmosphere. Expanding to the west, it forms vacuum clouds, the range of which is unlimited. In recent years, the salt content of rainwater more than doubled in Tashkent, Belarus and Lithuania. In the immediate vicinity of the Aral Sea, figures have grown sevenfold. The poisonous salts of the Aral region are found in the blood of the penguins of Antarctica, on the glaciers of Greenland, in the forests of Norway.

But the inhabitants of the Aral Sea region, face the consequences first of all. Specialists recorded a 30-fold increase in the incidence of typhoid fever, 7-fold viral hepatitis, the number of cancer patients grew 15 times. According to experts, up to 5 million people suffer from health problems due to drying out of the Aral Sea. Due to lack of water, the ports of Aralsk, Muynak and Kazakhdorja were closed. More than a hundred thousand people left the once a promising fishing region.

The degradation of the Aral Sea began in the 1960s, with the fault of the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Management of the USSR. At that time, most of the flow of the Amudarya and Syr Darya rivers, the main life-giving arteries of the Aral Sea, was taken through the canal system for irrigation and economic needs of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan. As a result, the sea heavily retreated from its shores, for tens of kilometers, exposing the bottom, covered with sea salts with an admixture of pesticides and other harmful chemicals.

The ecological picture was changing too fast. As a result, for a couple of decades, the sea level decreased 14 meters, the water area decreased 40%, the water volume 65%. Salinity of water increased 10 times. If in the 1950s there were 24 species of fish, 12 of which represented commercial value, and the catches reached 500 thousand tonnes per year, by the end of the 1980s, two dozen species of fish completely disappeared. The dried up seabed has turned into a giant hotbed of salt accumulation and the origin of salt dust storms.

But the Aral Sea is still hopeful. And today its position is not as catastrophic as it was a couple of decades ago. Thanks to the policies of Kazakhstan.

In 1989 the shrinking pond fell apart into two isolated parts: the Northern part the Small Aral in the territory of Kazakhstan and the Southern part the Big Aral, located in Uzbekistan. Kazakh authorities had numerous attempts to fence the Small Aral to prevent water from flowing out to save the remains of the water. Several dams were built some in the early 1990's. But the buildings did not serve for a long time - they were very old and got washed away by the stormy waters of the lake. Only in 2005 a more modern and more efficient dam - Kokaralskaya, partially built at the expense of the naitonal budget of Kazakhstan, was built. It was partly supported by the World Bank.

As a result, in two years the Small Aral was almost completely filled the water, the sea approached Aralsk, the climate over the lake and its coast softened. The pastures began to revive, and sturgeon was released into the Small Aral. Life in the Aral Sea began to improve. The sea again became endless and as before, the fishing boats, awaiting a large catch, were floating along. The desert devours the Aral only on the other side of the dam, where there is still no special effort to save the sea.

In the meantime, it will take decades to completely restore the the Aral Sea, considering the joint efforts of all countries concerned. The basin of one of the largest lakes in the world covers the territories of six states - five Central Asian countries and Afghanistan. All these countries, with the exception of the latter, are members of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. The document on its establishment was signed in 1993.

Some of the issues were solved at the initial stage by the Fund, the Interstate Coordination Water Commission meets every year, but there has never been a major breakthrough in solving the Aral Sea issues. The sea still dries up and the situation worsens, it concerns, basically, only the Great Aral Sea, located on the territory of Uzbekistan. The reason for the failures in the salvation of the sea is known - the countries of the five have a lot of internal contradictions, each of the state has its own national interests, which do not always coincide with the policy of restoring the common water basin.

The mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the least affected, by this problem, countries. They are interested in increasing the production of electricity at their HPPs. Hence they accumulate water from the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers at the most inappropriate time in the summer, with a subsequent discharge during the winter, when they need more energy. This contradicts the needs of downstream countries and as a result, water does not reach the sea, and at best, is dumped into various depressions and at worst flooding coastal settlements.

Meanwhile, the channels of Turkmenistan drain the Amudarya, and the economic appetites of Uzbekistan for gas production at the bottom of the dried Aral Sea are also growing. But experts are sure - the death of the Aral Sea and the degradation of the entire environment around it has far greater consequences, both ecological and economic. The consequences that are not comparable to those benefits and advantages that are possible with its further drying out and further indifference from the countries of the Central Asian region.

And what is important: the horrific consequences of human activities, harmful to the Aral Sea, and continuing despite all the efforts to this day, one way or another will impact all the states within Central Asia without exception. Already millions of adults and children are suffering, as before the Aral Sea is spoken of as a glorious past, as a fairy tale that has come to an end prematurely and tragically, but still there is hope. Hope that the five countries of the region will take control of the situation once and for all -- they will sit at the negotiating table and, throwing back its internal, personal interests and ambitions, will unite in saving the common future for everyone.

The Aral problem is a problem, again, not only of the Central Asian region, but for the whole continent. The whole world can suffer from this disaster in the end. After all, tonnes of harmful salt dust, annually raised by winds from the bottom of Aralkum, settles even on mountain glaciers located in Tajikistan. This caustic salt causes the glaciers of the Pamir and Tien Shan to melt faster and more intensively, exacerbating the already very tense situation with water in Central Asia. So, all countries of the region should be interested in saving the Aral Sea, the good thing is, it is being supported by the international community, from the highest tribunes, including the UN. And this gives a chance to restore the Aral Sea, which is important for everyone, but also forgotten by many.

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