Wednesday, 06 June 2001

WATER SHORTAGE IN CENTRAL ASIA AND RE-ROUTING OF SIBERIAN RIVERS TO CENTRAL ASIA

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By Abdukhalil Razzakov (6/6/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The end of 20th century and the beginning of 21st has seen serious drought in Central Asia and adjoining regions. The water problem has never been so acute in the post-independent history of the Central Asian states. The ecologic situation in the Aral Sea basin is disastrous; only one third of the Aral Sea’s surface remains.

BACKGROUND: The end of 20th century and the beginning of 21st has seen serious drought in Central Asia and adjoining regions. The water problem has never been so acute in the post-independent history of the Central Asian states. The ecologic situation in the Aral Sea basin is disastrous; only one third of the Aral Sea’s surface remains. Economic hardships in the region do not allow governments to deal properly with these issues: none of the five Central Asian states has achieved the production level of 1990. Agricultural production is low. For example, Uzbekistan produced only 3 million tons of raw cotton in 2000, compared to 4-5 million tons in previous years. This is not a unique problem. The distribution of water among upstream and downstream countries has always been a thorny issue. Central Asian history also has experienced serious water clashes. Sources show that Samarkand and Bukhara fought a war over rights to the Zarafshan River. Generally speaking, upstream countries tend to capitalize on their advantageous geographic location.  According to many sources, the drying up of the Aral Sea is not a new phenomenon. For instance, ancient Greek sources do not mention the Aral Sea at all. Academician L. Berg argues that in 1848-1880 level of Aral Sea was very low, but that it subsequently recovered. B. Fedorovich has argued that the Aral Sea did not even exist 18,000 years ago. The present drying of the sea began in early 1960s, with the massive agricultural expansion of Central Asia singled out as the main reason. In the early 20th century, however, American geographer Hantington, who visited the region, came up with the ‘theory of progressive drying’ of the Central Asian region. The famous Russian climatologist Voyeykov held the view that the drying up of the Aral Sea is not dangerous because water is vaporized there without any use. But the majority of theories supported the opposite view. Thus, Russian academician Middendorf in 1880-1881 came to the conclusion that the region would in the future face a shortage of water and natural fertilizers. The proposal to re-route Siberian rivers to Central Asia was first suggested in the 1880s; over time, various other suggestions were offered to solve this problem. Middendorf’s prediction is nevertheless being proved right now. If in the 1950s the Aral Sea watered around 2,9 mln. hectares of land, now this is approximately 7 mln. hectares. 

IMPLICATIONS: The search for a solution to this problem gathered momentum during the perestroika period. Firstly, effective water usage techniques were sought, but taking into consideration the scope of the problem, various proposals of re-routing Siberian rivers to Central Asia have been developed. Obviously, such proposal had its supporters as well as detractors. The main points of the proposal included, first of all, channeling 25-27 cubic kilometers of water to the Aral Sea from the Ob-Irtish – that is an amount roughly equivalent to the annual inflow of water to the Aral Sea). This would amount only to 6-7 % of the Ob-Irtish’s total waters. Various ‘patriots’ opposed the idea. Some Russian experts argued that would ‘worsen the ecologic situation’, while a few Americans and Canadians feared that the level of the Northern Atlantic would diminish as a result, thus affecting shipping through Northern route. But this does not account for global warming. There is a fear of an increase in level of world oceans, which would threaten many coastal states, including large countries such as Russia, the United States and Canada. Re-routing of a portion of Ob-Irtish waters would hence if anything be beneficial to global water issues. Recently Western Michigan University Professor Phillip Miklin supported in general the re-routing of Siberian rivers to Central Asia. He argued that this decision would be inevitable not only for agricultural reasons, but also for social reasons. Gradually, the proposal of re-routing the Ob-Itrtish to Central Asia has resurfaced.  The 1990s saw the break-up of the Soviet Union and the creation of 15 independent states. Governments seem more exacerbated with problems connected to economic growth, the elimination of poverty and other transitional problems except ecology. But for over 10 years no tangible improvements have taken place. It has become clear that water shortage problems cannot be effectively solved by any of the states of the region, and a broader international involvement is necessary. Dozens of international conferences and seminars may have been held by aid agencies, but unfortunately empiric data shows no signs of a real improvement of the situation.

CONCLUSIONS: Although it seem ambitious, the re-routing of Ob-Irtish appears to be the only tangible solution to ecologic and other problems caused by drying of the Aral Sea. In order to minimize negative consequences of this project, it is necessary to cover the bottom of the prospective channel with concrete or direct the water through pipes.  Environmental problems are inter-connected with the broader economic and social problems of Central Asian states. True integration among five states is a key to success in any sphere. Given the international interest in improving the situation in and around the Aral Sea and the lives of peoples that live around it, the international community could conceivably provide funding to support a project, provided regional states will be able to come up with a tangible and coordinated project of re-routing Ob-Irtish to Aral Sea. 

AUTHOR: Dr. Abdukhalil Razzakov is a Professor at the Tashkent State Economic University. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to water issues in Central Asia and he writes extensively on the subject. He is a member of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS).

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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