The drying up of the Aral Sea is one of the two worst environmental disasters of the Soviet era, with Chernobyl being the other one. All that has remained from the former sea is a biggish salt lake in Kazakhstan and several smaller ones in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, local companies continue taking water for irrigation from the rivers that used to feed the Aral Sea, which makes the chances for the sea’s revival even slimmer. However, there are startups that theoretically know how to improve the environmental situation in the region.
Aral Sea Facts
At the moment, the Aral Sea as an ecosystem has gone – apparently forever. So when any possibility of its recovery is being discussed, what is meant is the restoration of several individual areas, which are actually growing smaller despite the efforts being made in Kazakhstan and some action – mostly fruitless – taken in Uzbekistan. Because Uzbek and Turkmen (and to a smaller extent Tajik) companies continue diverting the water through the canals, there is a shortage of drinking water in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya deltas, which is the reason why migration has intensified from those areas. The fishing value of the deltas and the sea is completely lost. The forests along the rivers have died either from lack of water, or have been cut down for kindling; the lakes have dried up, and have not been compensated by artificial reservoirs. Almost all the fish has died in the rivers. Even the climate in the Aral Sea region and at the headwaters of the rivers in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains has changed to more continental.
The Soviet project
The most well-known project to save the Aral Sea involves diverting part of the Siberian rivers’ flow, in particular the Ob, toward it. The project was initiated in the 1970s, and even funding for its first phase was allocated then. However – this fact is usually hushed up – most of the Ob water was not intended for feeding the Aral Sea, but for irrigating fields in Kazakhstan. Only a small part was intended to maintain the sanitary condition of the Aral Sea and the deltas of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. They have not even thought of using drip irrigation, like in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has seven times less fresh water than Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that retrieve water from the two rivers. Reducing the intake of water from Syr Darya or Amu Darya even by half will release enough water to save the rivers’ deltas even if not save the Aral Sea. Also, contrary to a common opinion, the primary consumers of water in Uzbekistan are rice and wheat rather than cotton.
Uzbekistan developed an artificial sprinkling technology that is expected to improve the environmental situation at the Aral Sea. The system generates artificial clouds and triggers artificial rain. The technology is eco-friendly and does not require using any chemicals. Developers claim that they can restore the sea level of the 1960s within five to seven years. However, environmentalists are challenging the project and the official stand is that even if no more water is retrieved from Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the sea will take 200 years to restore. However, the system creators are willing to disprove the theory. They believe that restoring the Aral Sea will require four systems, each worth around $90 mio, which is significantly cheaper than similar foreign systems. In addition go generating clouds, the technology allows purifying climate and humidifying air. It can also be used in airports for dispersing fog.
It must be said that the official Tashkent has different plans. According to the Uzbekistani Biodiversity Preservation Strategy for 2019-2028, the dried-up bottom of the Aral Sea will be subject to forestation, with the forests to spread across the total area of 1.2 mio ha.
Last April, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Peter Burian paid an official visit to Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan that has access to the former Aral Sea. He learned about the projects aimed at improving the situation with the Aral Sea with the support of the UN. A multi-partner fund to save the Aral Sea with financing provided by the EU was established. The first external donor of the UN Trust Fund for the Aral Sea region was Norway, which invested some $1.1 mio. The fund began its activity on November 17, 2018. The government of Uzbekistan took an obligation to provide $6.5 mio; as of April 2019, it has provided $2 mio.
In 2018, Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda Region launched the second stage of the project to recreate the Aral Sea, named “Realignment of the Syr Darya River Course and Preservation of the Northern Part of the Aral Sea.” The project is financed by the World Bank and Kazakhstan’s budget. The second stage of the project includes eight subprojects. Upon completion of these subprojects, the sea will come close to the town of Aralsk, which once was a port city. This will help increase fish production at the North Aral Sea (this is what is left of the Aral Sea; the North Aral Sea is located in Kazakhstan), and will allow for creating more jobs in the city.
The subprojects also include the reinforcement of levees in the Karamakshinsky and Kazalinsk counties of the Kyzylorda Region, as well as the alignment of the Syr Darya river bed near Korgansha and Turumbet in the Zhalagash County of the Kyzylorda Region, the repair of the Kyzylorda hydroelectric hub, and the constriction of a bridge near Birlik, Kyzylorda Region. Some $29 mio was allocated for this purpose from the budget.
The first stage of the project was completed in 2010 when Dike Kokaral was built raising the water level by 12 m. The second stage was to begin in 2014, but it was delayed due to lack of agreement with the Uzbek party: Tashkent insisted that the project will have a negative environmental impact on the Aral Sea basin. The Tajik side demanded that Kazakhstan should ensure the preservation of Aydar-Arnasay system of lakes; the Kazakh authorities failed to do so yet launched the project.
According to Kazakh researchers’ forecasts, restoring the sea to its 1960s condition would require a four-fold increase in the inflow of waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers as compared to the current average amount, which totals 13 cubic kilometers as the result of the irrigation water withdrawal. Uzbekistan, the side most affected by the drying up of the sea, is organizing scientific conferences which have proved inefficient so far as cotton water consumption continues. In addition, large hydrocarbon reserves have been discovered on the seabed which is now the Aralkum Desert, amounting to over one third of the estimated hydrocarbon reserves in Central Asia. Naturally, the Russian oil giant Lukoil, which operates in the desert, would not like to see it become the Aral Sea again.
The Tajik side proposed a plan for a project that seems fantastic: filling the sea with waters of Sarez Lake, which is located in the Pamir Mountains. This would reduce the lake water level by 70-100 m and consequently provide up to 8 bcm of water for the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Sarez Lake was formed following a massive quake in 1911, and has since posed a serious risk for local residential areas, with sudden flooding possible in case another quake occurs. However, no practical efforts have been made to implement this very old project.
By Roman Mamchits