Some 150 million tons of toxic dust is carried by the wind every year around the world from the bottom of the drying Aral Sea. It is inhaled by the inhabitants of Asia, Europe, and sometimes even Antarctica. The zone of destruction from the consequences of the largest environmental catastrophe of mankind has long exceeded the limits of Central Asia, demanding urgent measures from the world.
The desert landscapes covered with white flakes interspersed with sand cities is now a frequent picture for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Southern or the Great Aral is almost completely dry, and storm clouds cover the cities of the countries adjacent to the basin. The picture is absolutely apocalyptic: empty streets, a dense gray haze covering the horizon, and a spotlight that reminds people that people still live there. In recent years, such storms began to happen more often. The sea seems to inflict revenge on man for what he once did to him.
Before the beginning of shallowing, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world, an oasis in the Central Asian desert that fed all the adjacent cities. There was fishing and a resort zone. But from the 60s the lake-sea began to dry up rapidly with the efforts of the Soviet authorities, initiated by the diversion of the feed of the Amudarya and Syrdarya Aral to irrigate cotton and rice fields. Aral died even faster than its executioners, the Soviet academicians from the agriculture sector expected. The oasis has turned into a cracked white desert with islands of rusted ships and a thorny roll-over field, has become an ideal setting for filming end-of-the-world movies and depressing music videos.
The scale of the disaster in the coastal countries did not come to light at once. And it was not like that before! The USSR collapsed, the Central Asian republics tasted independence. When realized – the patient was, as they say, already “rather dead than alive.”
Since then, the era of projects to save the Aral Sea began. And what scenarios were not offered! Sometimes to the most incredible: for example, to dig a channel from the Caspian Sea to the Aral Sea or turn the Siberian rivers and drop water into the Aral from the Ob and the Irtysh. But these projects, although technically possible, could lead to other environmental disasters. Therefore, it was chosen to follow not so cardinal, but safe option for the rest of the ecosystem: the division of the sea and the salvation of each part separately.
The northern part was saved by Kazakhstan. There first work began on the construction of the Kokaral dam to stop the water disappearing in the sand. When the dried pool began to fill with water, the biologists took up the restoration of flora and fauna. Efforts were not in vain: now the water level in the Small Aral reaches fifty meters, the concentration of salt in a liter has decreased so much that the pond again became suitable for fish, whose number of species already exceeds two dozen.
The example of the revival of the Small Aral gives hope to scientists that it is also possible to revive the Great Aral. But this requires financial support, political will and competent scientific approach. First, it is necessary to improve the long-standing irrigation canals in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Secondly, to refuse to maintain small reservoirs in the delta of the Amu Darya, which evaporate in the summer anyway. These flows can be directed to the filling of the western part of the Great Aral, where there is still water. Thirdly, it is necessary to reconsider the desirability of the scale of cultivation of moisture-loving crops.
These are just a few projects that could give the Greater Aral a chance to live. In the long term, there are many more options. More than 70 projects are currently submitted to the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and the governments of the countries of the region. Other countries are ready to join their implementation. Because everyone understands that the drying sea is a general catastrophe, the consequences of which, if not stopped, will long be felt throughout the world. Already, the number of people affected by the drying out of the Aral exceeds 5 million people. These are people who have been diagnosed with respiratory diseases, esophageal diseases, laryngeal cancer and even blindness in the face of environmental catastrophe.
Possibilities of reanimation of the lake-sea on August 24 in Turkmenistan will be considered by the heads of the founding states of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. [The summit has since been held. Ed.] The meeting is special. At least because the last time the delegates of this forum met 9 years ago. But there were quite a few urgent reasons for negotiations for this period. However, disagreements on this issue always interfered.
Now among the players of the region there is a tendency towards rapprochement. Central Asian states demonstrate their intention to agree even on the most problematic items on the general agenda. It remains to be hoped that the Aral Sea will not be an exception. If the riparians agree and are identified with the action plan, then it will be easier to connect international donors to the process.
According to this scheme, the restoration of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is already under way. The country has clearly outlined the plan of action and showed serious intentions. Due to this, the republic attracted two World Bank loans for a project called “Regulation of the Syr Darya river bed and preservation of the northern part of the Aral Sea”. The total cost of its two phases is more than 200 million dollars.
Estimates of projects to save the Greater Aral Sea are likely to be many times more significant, but judging by the concerns of the international community and the frightening estimates of international researchers about the consequences of the complete drying out of the sea, it is obvious that there should be no problems with financial support. The case for the political will of other countries, connected by a single water system with a drying pond and rivers feeding it is strong.
So, if Uzbekistan declares its readiness to save the sea, then the authorities of the country can understand that for this, it may be necessary to sacrifice projects for the exploration and production of oil and gas at the bottom of the dried-up basin. We will have to choose between ecology, health of the population and as yet ghostly incomes from the production of hydrocarbons.
Yes, the choice will not be easy. But now it is important to realize that there can be no other chance. Saving the Aral Sea is still possible.
This is not fiction. The sea can be resurrected. Perhaps not in its former form, but in an adequate way to support the ecosystem and revive the economy of coastal areas. And then the resurrected Aral Sea will give the countries of the region much more opportunities than any projects on the site where it once was.