Andrew Osborn









The Independent, 10th April 2007 12:12

Andrew Osborn

WORLD | Once the world’s fourth largest body of inland water, the Aral Sea became a victim of the Soviet era after rivers were diverted for crops. Now the tide is turning in its favour. 

Seen from space, the Aral Sea looks like a collapsed pair of lungs and a sliver of liver that have atrophied in the fierce central Asian sun. Once the world’s fourth largest source of inland water, the lake has shrunk to a third of its original size in five decades and it was not so long ago that experts predicted its total demise by 2020.

But against the odds the tide appears to be turning in ecologists’ favour and the sea staging an unlikely comeback. In a rare story of man remedying his past mistakes – at least in part – the Aral Sea is being gradually resuscitated and water is being pumped into its atrophied organism once again.

Experts concede that it is probably too late to save “the patient’s” shrivelled lungs, giant basins of water that seem destined to shrink still further, perhaps resembling small gall stones before the last drop of water runs into the sand. But the sea’s “liver” – a body of water known as the Northern Aral Sea after the original sea split into three parts – can, they say, be spared and enlarged and given a second lease of life few thought it would ever have.

The sea straddles two countries – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and it is the northern sliver, which is in Kazakhstan, that appears to have a future.

“The rebirth of the Northern Aral Sea is a good showcase project,” Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, an expert in water problems at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Ogonok magazine. “It shows that if we fret about the environment and invest money, it is possible to get reassuring results. The loss of such a unique natural resource as the Aral would be a global tragedy. And it cannot be allowed to happen.”

Justifiably, the Aral Sea’s decline over the past five decades has been called one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters of the 20th century, the result of the stroke of an unthinking Soviet bureaucrat’s pen. In a doomed attempt to subvert Mother Nature, communist central planners in the 1960s signed the sea’s death warrant by diverting the course of the two rivers that flowed into it to irrigate cotton and rice fields instead. As a result, the Aral Sea was starved of the water that sustained it. “White gold”, as cotton is popularly known in central Asia, was, the planners decided, more important than the fishing industry, fresh water, and ecological equilibrium itself. The Soviets knew that the sea would die off as a result and viewed its demise with black humour and arrogance.

“Let the Aral die beautifully!” Grigory Voropaev, the architect of the hare-brained scheme that diverted the course of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, is reported to have said. Having swallowed their own propaganda about the boundless possibilities of Soviet power, communist planners are reported to have genuinely thought that the Aral Sea was “a mistake of nature” and that it was their duty to correct it.

Their minds were on Kremlin-dictated production plans and on the economy of Soviet central Asia, not the environment. In 1968, when the destruction of the sea was well under way, a Soviet engineer apparently nonchalantly said it was “inevitable” that the famous body of water would simply evaporate. The results of the Soviet plan were predictable and catastrophic bringing misery to the 3.5 million people living around the body of water. Before their very eyes the sea began to dry up. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral’s sea level fell by an average of 20cm a year; in the 1970s, that rate nearly tripled to 50-60cm per year, and by the 1980s it was dropping by some 80-90cm annually. By the mid-1990s only one third of the sea was left and what had once been a single body of water had been gradually sliced into three distinct segments. The dramatic changes meant that an island, Vozrozdeniya, that was once so isolated that it was used for biological weapons research, became part of the mainland.

The water that was left became highly salinated, the “sea’s” 24 species of freshwater fish died out, fishing boats found themselves marooned in the middle of a desert, and once thriving communities had the economic rug pulled from beneath their feet.

Fierce dust storms made local people’s lives even more miserable and the new climate and landscape brought disease and death in their wake. Mixed in with salt, chemicals and pesticides, the wind carried the highly polluted dust into people’s throats and even on to the precious cotton fields that the Aral Sea had been sacrificed for in the first place.

Perhaps more alarmingly there were also fears of contaminated dust blowing up from what used to be the biological weapons testing ground on Vozrozhdeniya.

Over the past 15 years, chronic bronchitis has increased by 3,000 per cent in the area and arthritic diseases by 6,000 per cent.

According to local doctors, up to 99 per cent of women of reproductive age on the southern shore of the sea have anaemia, and 87 per cent of their babies are born with the condition.

Cancers, allergies, miscarriages and kidney and liver diseases have all increased and life expectancy has slumped from 64 years to 51. To add insult to injury, the irrigation has poisoned the cotton fields with salt, causing production to fall.

With the help of a multimillion dollar loan from the World Bank, the tide is being turned back though. An initial loan of $68m (£34.6m) to the government of Kazakhstan has already turned miles of sunscorched salt-saturated steppe into water. The first phase of the regeneration project – a dam that helps stop river water from literally turning into sand – has already been completed.

And now the second phase of the plan, the construction of a second dam and further fortifications designed to separate the desert from the region’s rivers, is ready to be implemented.

Yesterday it emerged that the World Bank has approved a new loan of $126m to bring the sea back to the port of Aralsk, stranded without water some 25 miles from the tip of the Northern Aral Sea. “The sea has left the harbour, but it hasn’t left our hearts,” a dilapidated sign in the dried-up Aralsk harbour reads.

If things go to plan the sea could be back in Aralsk by 2010, giving children who have only heard of the Aral Sea a chance to experience the traditional life by the water that their parents and grandparents knew.

Reclaiming a desert by flooding it with river water may sound nothing short of a miracle, and indeed local officials are prone to refer to what is happening as the eighth wonder of the world, but the Kazakhs and the World Bank insist that the results are already tangible.

The 13km dam in Kazakhstan, built with the first tranche of World Bank money, has allowed the Syr Darya river to feed the Northern Aral Sea for the first time in decades. As a result, the sea has pushed its way back into the desert. Kazakh officials say 40 per cent of the water has already returned.

Fishermen are back in their boats in areas that were desert a few years ago and even the climate appears to have changed for the better, with clouds and rain more frequent than before. Jandos Kumanov, a local fisherman, says he has started to catch more fish again after years of struggling by travelling to parts of the region where the Aral Sea has returned.

Fish were artificially introduced in order to kick-start the once thriving industry. “In the past two years life has become easier,” Mr Kumanov told the BBC. “You can see fishermen are now building houses, buying cars, and sending their children to schools outside the big cities.”

The surface area of the Northern Aral Sea has swelled by almost 900 sq km to 3,300 sq km and its level has risen by 3m to 42m. The water is less saline, and vegetation is spreading on the shoreline.

However, in neighbouring Uzbekistan it seems that the lessons of the past have not been learnt. Instead of trying to revive the much larger part of the Aral Sea that lies beneath the northern section, the government appears more interested in prospecting for oil and gas deposits in its dried out seabed.

The water that is left in the Uzbek sector is so salty that the sea cannot even sustain oceangoing fish.

Fifty years ago it was a thirst for cotton and rice that dealt a devastating blow to the Aral Sea. Now it seems that a hunger for oil and gas will finish off its southern segment, leaving the much smaller Northern Aral Sea as a symbol of hope and a reminder to future generations not to repeat the mistakes of shortsighted Soviet central planners.