Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Fixing the Aral Sea disaster: towards environmental cooperation in Central Asia?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Rafis Abazov

June 28th, 2016, The CACI Analyst

Kazakh experts have recently begun to call water the “liquid gold of the 21st century,” as all states in the Central Asian region face greater demand for water concurrent with a significant decline in water supply. The Aral Sea – which became a symbol of environmental mismanagement and environmental catastrophe at the end of the 20th century – shows that sustainable development policies can help to deal with even the most difficult water issues. Conversely, however, mismanagement and border conflicts over water might worsen the situation, leading to further political and economic tensions. The current question is whether Kazakhstan can collaborate with other Central Asian states in saving and perhaps reviving the Aral Sea.


aralseaBACKGROUND: Recently Kazakhstan’s news agency Kazinform reported that the level of the Aral Sea rose by several percent during the last 12 months, thus reducing the devastating impact of the salt and various chemical pollutants from the drying seabed, which are carried by the wind for thousands of square miles across the entire region. This turnaround has a substantial positive impact on the economy of the areas around the Aral Sea, where annually between 15,000 and 75,000 tons of salt drift on the wind, destroying huge tracts of agricultural farmland.

This is a small step in the grand battle Kazakhstan has engaged in to save the Aral Sea since the country’s independence in 1991, but one which illustrates the many challenges that Kazakhstan has been facing in its water management system.

One of the most pressing issues has been the trans-border nature of water management for the southern provinces of the country, which form part of the water basin of the Aral Sea. Practically all major rivers in southern Kazakhstan originate in neighboring countries – the Ili River in China and the Syrdarya River in Kyrgyzstan – raising concerns over the future of water supply as both Kyrgyzstan and western China plan to use more water for their own rapidly growing agriculture.

A second challenge is overexploitation of water reserves from the main rivers – the Syrdarya and many of its small tributaries – for irrigation purposes as well as industrial and home use. In fact, Kazakhstan consumes more water per capita and per every dollar of GDP produced than residents of many other regions on the planet, ranking eleventh worldwide in terms of per capita water consumption. Not surprisingly, that over-usage of water resources has led to environmental problems in the country and in the region – such as the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which has lost almost 75 percent of its water during the last four or five decades.

Third is climate change and dwindling reserves of fresh water for drinking and irrigation – a trend which makes many government officials, economists and experts nervous. The Aral Sea, again, provides a prime example of the challenges inherent in developing an effective water management system, necessitating international and regional collaboration. The shrinking of the Aral Sea (once the world’s largest inland lake, with a total area of about 64,490 square kilometers in 1960) upset the ecological balance, causing environmental degradation – which in turn negatively affected important parts of the economic system not only in Kazakhstan, but also in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

IMPLICATIONS: The crisis clearly indicated the need for development of an effective water management system in collaboration with all stakeholders including the neighboring countries. The national governments of the region, with the help of the international community and international organizations, started to work together as early as 1994, attending a regional summit in Nukus City where the “Concept of Dealing with the Aral Sea” was introduced. They achieved significant results not only in dealing with social and economic consequences of the disaster, but also in restoring some sections of the Aral Sea by 2014–2016. Saving the Aral Sea was the result of intensive collaboration between public and private sectors and NGOs, as well as the work of international organizations and UN agencies. Several factors contributed to this success.

One was harnessing the latest technologies and engineering solutions in water management in the Syrdarya River basin in the territory of Kazakhstan – and especially in the territory of neighboring Kyrgyzstan – by restoring parts of the Soviet-era irrigation management system and constructing some new system elements. It showed that the right policy planning and collaboration within the framework of public–private partnership (PPP) and with the help of the international community can lead to positive results: the surface of the Aral Sea has recovered from 2,606 square kilometers in 1994 to 3,556.6 in 2014, with a total volume increase from 17.7 to 25.2 cubic kilometers.

The second factor was abandoning or reducing certain agricultural activities with a high level of water consumption, such as cotton, tobacco and rice production, which helped more water flow into the Syrdarya River and ultimately to the Aral Sea. In the end, the economic infrastructure around the water system has been partially restored. Fish farmers have returned with new techniques and have restored certain stocks to a level where they can sell fish in local markets. Agriculture was also partially restored in the lower stream of the Syrdarya River, where irrigation systems are now able to feed 70,000 square kilometers due to the introduction of new crops and water-saving agricultural technologies (such as drip irrigation).

The third factor was a decision undertaken by the Kazakh government to invest in a dam to preserve at least the Kazakh sector of the Aral Sea, with the goal of stabilizing the remaining section of the Sea. Fourth, the countries in the region began discussions addressing trans-boundary water issues, improving water management, investing in water-saving technologies, and upgrading networks of canals, dams and reservoirs.

CONCLUSIONS:  Policy initiatives and collaboration around the single most devastating environmental disaster in the region suggest that right policy planning and strategy may lead to positive outcomes in dealing with regional issues and conflicts. At this point, there are a number of fronts on which such policy initiatives are urgently needed. First, the strategy of the government of Kazakhstan as well as that of neighboring countries in Central Asia and China should be focused on creating an effective collaboration mechanism to deal with trans-border water management issues and with current and potential future disagreements and conflicts over water usage within the multilateral framework. Second, the projections of water and climate experts suggest that due to climate change at the regional level there is an urgent need to introduce the latest water-saving and water management technologies for more effective water usage in industrial, agricultural and private retail sectors. Last but not least there is an urgent need for better policy initiatives for public private partnership (PPP) and to stimulate private investment in water-saving technologies and research and development (R&D).

AUTHOR’S BIOS: Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University (summer 2011). He also teaches at SIPA, Columbia University. He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999); The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and others. He has been awarded an IREX 2010–2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for research on public policy reforms in Kazakhstan.  

Image Attribution: live.landrover-me.com, accessed on June 23, 2016

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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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