Expert on Water Politics
12 July 2014
Until about 60 years ago, The Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake of the world and it was “blue eye of the desert”. But, this blue eye hasn’t been able to reach to 21st century. The lake surface has shrunken about 90% and left its place to Aralkum, “the youngest desert of the world”, over the places from which the water recessed. The Aral Sea was crossed with us and recessed its waters.
Now the scientists are discussing about how to bring the Aral Sea back in various international congresses and conferences. They are searching for the answer of the question “With whom the Aral Sea was crossed and will it return?
Works have been started since 1993 in the region attracting the attentions of the world for long time as a great environmental disaster. The 5 countries of the region (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan and Tajikistan) established a water commission in 1995 for inter-country coordination. Beside this, in the same year, IFAS (International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea). It is the most significant organization about saving the Aral Sea and surroundings. In March 1993, presidents of Central Asian countries signed an agreement to find joint solutions to the problems experienced in the Aral Sea and they have continued working on this issue. Since then, regional countries have been spending efforts in cooperation with international organizations to solve the ecological and socio-economic problems experienced in the Aral Sea basin and to improve the regional situations. Now, they wonder about whether or not the Aral will turn back rather than the current state of the basin.
Northern Aral Photo curtesy of Dursun YILDIZ 26 May 2011
Water recessions during the last 50 years resulted in rapid desertification of the agricultural lands around the Aral Sea and such a case severely affected the inhabitants of Kızılorda of Kazakhstan, Daşhavuz of Turkmenistan, Harezm, Nevai and Bukhara provinces of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakistan and also effected the flora and fauna of the region.
During the Soviet Union period, majority of the waters of Amu Darya and Siri Darya, feeding the Aral Sea, was diverted to cotton production lands at the beginning of 1960s and the Aral Sea started to dry out. Today, the lake shrunk about 90% and recessed about 170 km from the original shores. In 1960, the lake surface area was 68.900 km2, the water volume was 1083 km3, length of the lake was 426 km, width of the lake was 284 km and the highest water depth was 68 meters. But in the year 2010, the surface area decreased to 12.100 km2, water volume to 110 km3 and the highest water depth to 24 meters.
The year 1960 became the beginning of the end
The decision of former Soviet Union to increase the cotton production of Central Asia constituted the beginning of the end. During that period, water consumption increased by three folds and irrigated lands increased more than three folds and reached to 8.11 million hectares. Just because the decrease in water volumes reaching to the lake, the water level started to decrease about 1.5-2 meters in each year. When the 2010 was reached, the lake recessed from 54.000 km2 area and this area created the Aralkum, the “youngest desert” of the world covered with saline sandy layers. Each year, 15-75 million tons of sand dusts are blown by the wind and transported about 150-500 km distances and ultimately create significant environmental disasters over a large region.
In 1960s, there were more than 300 plant species, 35 bird species and 23 other animal species over the Aral Sea Basin. There were 34 fish species in 1960 and there were 60 thousand tons fish hunt. Today, fishing almost finished up in Aral Sea, except for a small area in Northern Aral. In South, fish canaries and cold storages in Moynak has already been abandoned. Fishing vessels has turned these regions into a vessel scrapyards and camels started to walk over the Aralkum.
The water volume of the Aral Sea decreased from 1083 km3 to 115 km3 during the last 50 years and water level of the lake decreased from 53,4 meters to 30,72 meters.
From the Aral Sea to Aralkum Desert
The decrease in water level of the Aral Sea is presented in Figure 1. In 1998, the Aral Sea separated into two water bodies and Northern Aral left totally within Kazakhstan and larger part of Southern Aral left within Kazakhstan. After 1998, water level continued to decrease and the bottom sand emerged to surface. Following Kızılkum and Karakum deserts, Aralkum Desert has started to be formed.
The Aral Sea Rescue Efforts
The environmental disaster experienced in the Aral Sea has effected 5 Central Asian countries (Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan). Therefore, the presidents of these five countries got together in 1993 and signed an agreement to solve the problem together. Within the scope of this agreement, an international foundation (IFAS) was established to save the Aral Sea.
The increasing interest of this foundation and AGİT, UNDP-like international organizations has created acceleration in rescue efforts spend in the region. Several projects were designed and international congress and conferences were held about this issue.
In a study carried out by World Bank, it was indicated that total rescue of the Aral Sea will not be possible in near future. Annually 75 billion m3 water is needed for the complete fill of the lake in 25 years. Considering the total annual capacity of the Siri Darya and Amu Darya rivers as 112 billion m3 and with current utilizations most of the water is diverted before to reach the lake, it is clear to see that such a fill-up is not a realistic approach. Therefore, rescue efforts should initially be spend to re-gain the Northern Aral. There two basic reasons for the success of this project. The first one; since the project will totally be located within the borders of Kazakhstan, it will be supported more by Kazakhstan and the second one; the lake volume is lower compared to Southern Aral and design of engineering structures will be easy.
The rescue efforts started in 1992 with the embankment constructed by the local people to keep the waters of Siri Darya River within the northern Aral. But this embankment failed in 1993, re-constructed in 1996 and re-failed in 1999. Finally with the support provided by the World Bank, a concrete Gökaral Dam was constructed in the region and the project was completed in the year 2006 and the water level in Northern Aral re-started to increase.
Current State in Northern Aral
Following the construction of Gökaral Water Structure, the water level of the lake increased from 38 meters to 42 meters in 5 years. Such an increase resulted in 874 km2 in lake surface area and the lake reached to a surface area of 3288 km2, water volume increased by 11,5 billion m3 and reached to 27 billion m3 and the salinity level decreased from 23 g/lt to 17 g/lt.
Within the scope of the project implemented to rescue Northern Aral, Gökaral Dam is the most significant engineering structure. Beside this, Aklak Regulator over Siri Darya was reconstructed and started to water holding for the large and small lakes over the river basin and provided water to 6000 ha land area.
In the second phase of the project, a canal will be constructed through the north Northern Aral fed by these small lakes and another water rising structure will be constructed within the lake and the lake will be fed by these sources, too.
Precipitations are decreasing in the region, temperatures are increasing and glaciers are melting
The answer of the question “whether or not the Aral Sea will return” lies behind the sustainability of the implemented solutions. Thus, the solution should initially be looked for within the basin. In-basin solution is depending on hydropolitics and meteorological climate conditions of the region.
Hydropolitics relations of the region depend on climate softening. However, temperature increases during the relevant periods result in melting of glaciers feeding the sources of Seyhun (Siri Darya) and Ceyhun (Amu Darya) Rivers. Beside this, gathered data indicate a decrease in regional precipitations (Figure 2).
All these conditions compel the sustainability of solutions to bring back the Aral.
The progress achieved in Northern Aral has increased the hopes for the return of the Aral Sea. However, whole return of the Aral Sea will not that much easy as achieved in Northern Aral. Engineering structures constructed over Northern Aral and geographical conditions eased the solutions. But, solution in Southern Aral mostly depends on water management and hydropolitics relations of the countries. Beside this, sustainability of the solution is another critical issue.
The primary point in solving water problem of the Aral Sea is the sustainable fashion of a solution. Water transfer to the Aral Sea from another basin may not be a sustainable solution. Therefore instead to water transfers from outside the basin, solutions should initially be looked for within the basin.
Considering the issue within the water problem of Central Asia, there is need for time to solve the water problems of the Aral Sea and Central Asia. But, ascending problems should be prevented during the time spend for solutions. The critical issue is not the regional project that Central Asian countries should implement; the issue is what they should do to prevent the increase of problems in their regions.
Water resources of Aral Basin are under the threat of meteorological climate as much as political climate. The most remarkable outcome of this threat is the rapid melts in glaciers constituting the source of Central Asian waters.
Thus, it is hard to reply the question of “will the Aral Sea return? in a near future.
The lake, lost as a whole in half a century, will came back piece by piece in a long run. The lucky one of these pieces is Northern Aral and return was partially completed. The engineering structures to hold the waters of Seyhun River within Northern Aral increased the lake levels in north. However, rather than engineering structures, efficient water management of regional countries will play a greater role in fill-up of Southern Aral. Therefore, there are several problems confronting the return of Southern Aral like meteorological climate change, softening of hydropolitics climate and etc.
The Aral Sea was crossed with humans not taking into account the natural cycle and ecosystem of the lake. It has gone away by recessing its waters. Apparently, it will not return in near future. The Aral Sea is like saying to people looking for it “you shouldn’t have sent me….”
It seems like it has no thought of return in short time…