A seven-mile dam is being built across a small northern section of the shrunken Aral Sea in Central Asia, which is described as the world’s worst environmental disaster. The saline inland sea, divided between the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has been drying out for 25 years, since the USSR began a vast irrigation scheme drawing water from its two tributary rivers to grow cotton and rice in the desert.
At the expense of millions of dollars, men have been sent into space to provide us with a stunning photograph of a dying sea.
Rescue schemes tried in the past decade have failed and one of the two rivers has ceased to flow. In some places the depth of water has fallen from 54 metres (177ft) to 28 metres and the retreat has left the hulks of ships marooned in a desert wasteland.
Now Kazakhstan, which relied on the sea for fish, has decided to abandon most of the sea by building a dam to impound the waters of the second main river. It is part of a water battle with Uzbekistan, which itself stopped the flow into the south of the Aral from the Amu-Daria.
Tension between the two countries has been increased by a number of border incidents, and Uzbekistan has barred the whole of its part of the sea to visitors and aid agencies. The last outsider to visit the area said people who used to be fishermen and farmers now survived only on food aid in a salt desert. Cancer and liver and kidney failure are commonplace in adults and children. Protesters in Uzbekistan have been jailed.
Kazakhstan says its river, the Syr-Daria, cannot by itself keep the whole sea alive. The water is in effect being wasted in the southern “dead zone”. It is spending ?50m of its newly acquired oil wealth on reducing losses to the Syr-Daria from irrigation and winter flooding. And by building a dam across what is now a narrow neck of dry land it hopes to restore the fishery and reduce dust storms. The World Bank is helping to fund the dam.
Five countries - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - use the two rivers for irrigation and have done so for centuries. But the area irrigated was expanded from 6m hectares (15m acres) in the 1960s to 8m and the sea began to shrink. It is reduced to three separate parts, and is still evaporating. A British diplomat in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, said “There is tension now over water, within 10 years if nothing changes there will be armed conflict.”
These unemployed Uzbek fisherman look out at the desert plain that separates them from their remembered livelihood.
Sirodjidin Aslow, chairman of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea who has an office in Dushanbe, is trying to solve the problem. “Soviet planning and the competition for water between these five states has turned the Aral Sea into trash,” he said. “To restore the sea we need 1,000 cubic kilometres of inflow a year, but we have barely one tenth of that - 110 cubic kilometres - and all that is from the north. The south gets only a trickle, if that. The shore line has receded on average by 250 kilometres … The level of salination has increased dramatically and the waters leave behind a salt paste containing pesticides and other minerals.”
The northern part was in better condition because there was still some river inflow and three fish species survived, but the south was virtually dead. All five states contribute to the fund and have signed more than a dozen action plans. Mr Aslow said: “We have a new 14-point action plan with a total of 58 projects which involve growing less thirsty crops and we believe we can cut the water use by half with modern irrigation methods. We have to persuade the countries involved not to use the water saved for yet more irrigation.”
An aid worker who was one of the last to visit the southern Aral region said: “The people are in a terrible state, drinking out of muddy ditches, which is all that remains of a once mighty river. We had a plan to relocate the people but Uzbekistan refused to agree and threw us out. No one has any idea what happened to the people we were trying to help.”
Article courtesy of the Guardian