Central Asia’s Water Bomb

Posted in Asia | 23-May-05 | Author: Muhammad Aslam Khan

The water has gone - for ever ?
The water has gone - for ever ?
“The water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus, into the great destruction of the said river, for which it cause it falleth not into the Caspian Sea as it hath done in times past, and in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail.” (Anthony Jenkinson, 1558)

1. Introduction. Homosapiens are well familiar with the chemistry of bombs, which devastate the target through shattering explosive power or nuclear detonation. Corresponding to the scale of destruction wreaked by these devices, gradation in nomenclature has also emerged. The lesser bombs based on explosives fall in the category of conventional arsenal while others based on nuclear energy are labeled as non-conventional or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to connote their horrific magnitude of devastation. Central Asia’s water bomb is unique in character and application. It is cool. To begin with the Soviets and now Central Asian States and the public alike are its chief architects, relentlessly busy in enhancing its capacity to exact untold miseries. Tragedy of immense consequences is that it is being unleashed on the fellow countrymen, majority of them not even aware about the scale and direction of catastrophe it strikes them from. The synonymous expression of this cool and self-inflicting bomb is “Aral Sea Catastrophe”, also being termed as the most devastating tragedy of 20th century that lingers on.

2. Blissful Ignorance? Ignorance is human trait but it is not bliss here. We drink water and wash with it which is nature’s most refreshing gift to mankind, yet we remain gravely oblivious to its linchpin role in the life cycle of all living creatures. A few of us, perhaps those researching on this aspect may be aware that: -

  • The water we use is the same water, which dinosaurs shared.

  • A grown up oak tree transpires 100 gallons of water each day. An acre of cornfield transpires 3000-4000 gallons of water a day.

  • Every twenty-four hours, 250 cubic miles of water is evaporated from the seas and the land.

  • Water spreads over 80% of the earth surface; out of it 97 percent is seawater, 2 percent is locked in ice caps and glaciers and only 1 percent is available for drinking to the mankind.

  • Earth oceans cover 140 million sq miles and contain about 330 million cubic miles of water.

  • 60 percent of human body weight is water

The triangle of challenges is thus confined globally to 1 percent available drinking water, 6.5 billion world population and necessity to maintain 60 percent weight of each individual, assuming that other living things would have access to water as the component of its cycle in the swing. The water scarcity is widely acknowledged though but in some areas like Central Asia it is creeping at shocking pace to engulf the region through colossal environmental degradation, largely engineered by the inhabitants themselves. Statistics are available with research organizations at global level, which are read, debated and filed. Environmentalists agree that creeping environment problem (CEP) is striking this region like a stealth bomber. Conversely an oversight to face the water bomb squarely would mean only accentuating the on-set of man-made catastrophe. It is with this spirit that local and world bodies are being shaken out of the state of oblivion to a known sweet and cool water-bomb holocaust. The choice of words by Anthony Jenkinson may be peculiar to that era of 1558, yet his prediction about ‘failing Oxus’ has come dot true. Had he traveled to Syr Darya basin; perhaps he could have presaged credibly about its failure to reach Aral Sea as well. The two fresh water recharging sources, Amu and Syr Darya; thus facing tremendous depletion, may be dying of the agony on seeing the impending death of Aral Sea.

Commercial fishing ended in 1982
Commercial fishing ended in 1982
3. Historic Perspective. Modern Aral Sea is at least 10,000 years old. Central Asia, having inhospitable terrain and climate had been hit by scarcity of water through out the history. The population; initially nomads, swarmed around the water sources and grazing fields; subsequently choosing to settle down in the oases which gradually emerged as the main urban centers of Central Asia. The major sources are the rivers, which charged the Aral Sea for ages and constituted its basin. Some experts believe that Aral Sea Basin developed about three million years ago in Neocene period. Modern catchments area of basin emerged after regression of Paleocene Sea, which earlier covered this region. The basin, notwithstanding the contribution of other old rivers no longer potent, emerged through Amu and Syr Darya, which drain into the Aral depression. Ancient Amu River flowed into Caspian Sea. In the middle of Pleistocene period, Amu changed its direction of current from Zanguz Karakum to the lower Karakum and further through Balakhan- Donatin corridor to reach eventually the Caspian Sea. At the beginning of Holocene period Amu changed direction through Karakum into Sarykamysh-Aral depression. Some attribute the final change of direction of Amu River to the beginning of Lavlakan Pluvial period. It first filled Khorezm Lake, which expanded to connect with Aral through Akchadarya corridor. Shnitnikov maintained that for quite some time Amu discharged its water through Uzboy corridor into Caspian and also to Aral depression through Akchadarya corridor simultaneously. However tectonic process and large alluvial deposits sealed off its water discharge to Caspian Sea with recourse to Aral depression remaining, in form of Aral Sea. Evolution of Syr Darya is not known before Holocene period. Fedorovich and Adriano noted that during early and middle Paleocene era, Syr Darya migrated through northern Kyzylkum and present position of Syr Darya was reached only in late Holocene period. Approximately 9,000-10,000 years ago, Aral Sea was very small and only Syr Darya discharged water into it because Amu River at that time flowed into Caspian Sea. Aral Sea was only 31 meters above sea level (ASL). Between 4,000-5,000 years ago when Amu River changed its course to Aral Sea, the water level rose to 73 meters ASL, registering increase by 46 meters. Obviously Aral Sea surface area swelled larger by 4-5 times then what it was at the middle of 20th Century. Between 3,000-3,500 years ago Aral Sea water overflowed to Caspian Sea again through Uzboy corridor. Thus the water surface fell by 15 meters and stabilized at 58 meters ASL. Geologists suspect that Amu River’s Uzboy branch draining into Caspian Sea did not stop only due to climatic changes but also due to irrigation activity of the people. In 400 AD irrigation made Aral Sea dry up critically than today. At that time, Sarykamysh depression was a larger reservoir than the present Aral Sea. In mid 17th century Aral Sea surface lowered again but the desiccation was far less pronounced than that of 4th century AD. The present crises were triggered not by climatic changes, tectonic upheavals or alluvial deposits but by massive chemicals pollution and mismanaged aggressive irrigation that is virtually eating up both the rivers. Thus the tragic development not only rings death knell of Aral Sea but also for the future generations who will remain hostage to maintaining delicate balance between the deteriorating quantity of fresh water and criminal neglect to pollute the rivers water. The onset of 20th Century tragedy, casting ominous shadows in the new millennium, was crystallized by the Soviets decision to introduce cotton monoculture in Aral Sea basin to achieve self-sufficiency in cotton. It thrived at the expense of depletion of Amu and Sir Darya, which charged the Aral Sea for centuries to maintain ecological balance. Soviets thrust to build series of dams and canal network of approximately 40,000 kms length was presented as success showpiece to the world, which in fact was precipitating the biggest tragedy of the time to kill Aral Sea. Last to build was Takaitash Dam on Amu River at Nukus. It left the river gasping in agony with no water to flow into the Aral Sea except a trickle in high flood season. The inhabitants of Muynak town located at the shore of Aral Sea, with fishery as their occupation in 1950s fell a loud bang causality as sea drifted about hundred kms away. Since then the spread of water surface has reduced by over 60%, forcing large population to abandon their shore based occupation and their ancestral abodes. The toxic winds blustering from the dried-up seabed are taking heavy toll on the environment and its centerpiece, “homosapiens”. Each year 75 million tons of salt and toxic substances are spread by dusty storms in Central Asia, which reach as for as Himalayan peaks, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is estimated that Aral Sea when dries up shall leave 15 billion tons of toxic substances at the bed, to be carried later by the sweeping winds. Aral Sea basin is spread over an area of 690000 sq kms, which is shared by all Central Asian Republics (CARs). According to statistics quoted by Bakhtior A Islamov, Amu River contributed 73 cubic kms of water to Aral Sea prior to 1960 while its surface spread was 66000 sq km and stood at 53.4 meters. Similarly Syr Darya contributed 37cubic km of water in the same period to the Aral Sea. However, David Shukman differs with the quantum of water inflows of the two rivers into the Aral Sea. The decline in inflows forced the shrinkage of shorelines by 60%- 80% as registered in 1994. Some experts opine that spread of dried-up bed now, is about 50000 sq km. Karakum Canal, 1200 km long, goes over the flat sand dunes, taking main toll on Amu River. The toxic salts carried by strong winds are destroying 15000 hectares of pasture every year. The sea has turned out to be a concentrate of toxic wastes, dumped into it by the two rivers, carried from upstream. As a result aquatic culture in the sea has been totally eliminated. About 3 million people have suffered directly and 35 million people indirectly in Central Asia catastrophe. On the contrary, statistics showing expansion of cotton growing areas are pretty depressing. According to Critchlow, Uzbekistan area under cotton has registered an increase by 122 percent since 1940 while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have increased their cotton crop area by 196 percent and 330 percent respectively. In other words in every probability each of them is moving into the error with least concern for CEP.

4. Immediate Calamity Zone. Karakalpkstan Republic Khorezm Region of Uzbekstan, Kyzyl Orda Region of Kazakhstan and Dashkhovuz (former Tushauz) Region of Turkmenistan constitute the immediate calamity zone. The people under crunch of poverty are struck in this region by complicated diseases like cancer and gastroenteritis. Clean drinking water has become a scarce commodity. The rivers water when carried over large distances downstream needs desalination and chlorination due to the deterioration of its quality. Turkmenistan region of Dashkhovuz is the worst hit, being situated far down stream. Its four million people are threatened by water which is unfit for human consumption because of high doses of salinity, lead, cadmium and mercury. Kyzyl Orda of Kazakhstan, lying downstream of Syr Darya is plagued by excessive salination and extensive loss of agriculture land. The cumulative loss in past three decades has been measured to the tune of $3 billion for this region. Commercial activity in the Kazak Aral Sea was abandoned in 1980s since sea offered no prospects of income to its shore-dwellers. The catastrophe is the silent killer. Central Asia, with already extreme climate is fast losing the single large water body, which had balancing ecological effect on environs. In 1959,cumulative inflow of both the rivers was 58.5 cubic kms. It was registered worst for Syr Darya in years 1961,1978, 1980 and1984, when it had zero discharge into Aral Sea. For Amu River, 1989 was the worst as it had only 1 cubic km inflow to the Aral Sea. In fact for the known values, that (1989) was the overall worst year for the Aral Sea as well with cumulative inflow of 5.4 cubic kms of water as compared to much later cumulative yield even in 1994 that was 30.6 cubic kms. The recent research show that unless gigantic effort is put in to avert Aral Sea catastrophe; this magnificent large water reservoir is set to face doom by 2020 by vanishing altogether from Central Asia’s map (photographs show its early death symptoms). Sea level has fallen by 16 meters in last five years when the sea was already in two parts; the large and small Aral Sea. The confirmation is now awaited to know that the larger part has faced a split again.

Aral Sea
Aral Sea
5. An Extended Calamity. Research by Dr Spencer Wells of National Geographic Society, Washington proved that large quantities of chemicals used in cotton region to pluck ‘”white gold” have the link to alarming rate of cancer in the immediate zone of catastrophe. The statistics show that incidence of esophagus cancer in the zone is the highest in the world. What the calamity has demonstrated its scale to strike the ignorant people in the zone is unfortunately a classical euphemism only. DNA samples tested from Uzbek Karakalpkstan region through a venture, jointly under taken by Institute of Immunology (Tashkent) and Texas Technical University (USA) brings hair-raising revelations. The study proved that people of this region were prone to high level of “oxidative stress” causing problem to DNA and hence to their actual genetic code. DNA is an acronym for “deoxyribonucleic acid” which encodes genetic information. The researchers also expect the generalized level of DNA damage to human sperms and eggs. Therefore frightening possibility of damage transfer to next generations also exists. Briefly said the calamity is very much soaked in their genes. Government officials of CARs tend to agree on the scale of catastrophe projected through research works but when questioned to relieve water consumption and pollution stress over rivers; they wink, saying” white gold” was the compulsion. Not very visible human losses through cancer and genetic disorder may be acceptable to them in contrast to hunger, which may strike all CARs at an alarming scale if they abandon the white gold production. This aspect makes the malignant catastrophe a sweet pill to gulp.

6. Regional and Extra Regional Spectrum of the Issue/Options. Aral Sea catastrophe is a reality like a growing monster. Political change in Central Asia shifted the responsibility from Russia to the five CARs directly. Initially CARs progeny stalked much hopes on Russia, which they believe is morally bound to play an effective role in alleviating the intensity of such a tragedy. Being the architect of the cotton mono-culture, the Soviets recognized the precariousness of the situation in 1986 in Gorbachev era though rescue recipe was promised in Breznev time to resuscitate dying Aral Sea by executing a grand ‘”Siberian Rivers Diversion Project” also nicknamed as “Sib-aral”. Though it is a complicated research issue by itself, a brief elaboration may be pertinent. It relates to a possibility of importing water from northern humid zone rivers (Ob and Irtysh) through a structural trough (Turgay Gate). It links the Arctic and Aral Sea basin at an elevation of 120 meters. These rivers drain approximately 4700 cubic kms of water annually to Arctic Ocean. On 23 June 1990,CARs leaders repeated their appeal for execution of the same project. Russia’s response, not even lukewarm, is understandable because its responsibility perceived by her; ethics notwithstanding, is no more than any other sovereign state at international forum. Some points in the issue deserve emphasis in the sphere of fractional containment of the crisis if not its resolution: -

  • Emergence of CARs has upgraded the issue and global institutions like UNO, IMF and World Bank have come into play.

  • Water scarcity is yet not triggering inter-state clashes among CARs though the issue has the potential to rock the peace in Central Asia. The bitterness among CARs would increase, as does the thirst for water eventually.

  • Water disputes are already brewing up between:

    • Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on share of water in Amu- Karshi and Amu- Bukhara Canal

    • Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on Northern Great Farghhana Canal and Nurek Water Reservoir.

    • Tajikistan, Khyrgystan and Uzbekistan over water use in Karakul Canal and Toktogul reservoir.

Interstate Aral Sea Basin Program lays down some agreed ground rules to address water distribution irritants among CARs but not much is coming forth to restore the volume of inflows to Aral Sea. Several high level meetings since 1993 have kept the issue rolling; also leading to creation of a fund by CARs with $ 1.5 billion under the chairmanship of Uzbek President to blunt the effects of calamity, stabilize and restore Aral Sea level. The achievements are merely tactical while Aral Sea continues to gasp for survival. Uzbekistan is allocating 30% of its Pipe Water Program Budget, besides additional $ 130 million with focus on provision of drinking water, health and sanitation in the calamity zone. Simultaneously she is seeking international cooperation. World Bank extended $5 million loan in 1996 to boost Uzbek’s effort. Safe drinking water for her 1.46 million people is the immediate priority. On the strategic side; the steps relevant to more or less all CARs; Uzbekistan has to ensure efficient water resource management, avert land degradation due to over grazing, loss of biodiversity, excessive fertilizer use; and stop over exploitation of forest resources. Kazakhstan, in its calamity zone falling in Syr Darya delta is executing clean drinking water projects since 1996. A high bridge in Kyzyl Orda Region has substituted pontoon bridge at Terenozek, which impeded water flow. In collaboration with World Bank, construction of dykes to save and recharge its contiguous portion of Aral Sea is being done. Turkmenistan’s region of Dashkhovuz in the calamity zone is confronting life threatening aspects of catastrophe i.e. unavailability of clean drinking water and high sickness rate. She has launched efforts to benefit these people in water supply and sanitation; also aiming at enhancing the institutional, financial and technical sustainability. Approx .25 million people have been reached for. Khyrgystan, being upstream uses only 4% flow of Amu and Syr Darya. Though her role in aggravating the Aral Sea catastrophe directly is minimal yet it faces ecological threat. Its 42 Uranium tailing site, inherited from the Soviets, pose threat to other republics downstream. Tajikistan uses only 20% of water from the rivers, which have 55-62 cubic kms of run off annually. Located upstream with relatively lesser share in the Aral Sea Basin, it should have been contributing least to the catastrophe. No; but her share is significant. Her aluminum industry, the world largest smelter (514000 tons each year) is the major rivers pollutant upstream. The plant emits annually 193 tons of fluorides, 1306 tons of sulfur dioxide and 28900 tons of carbon mono oxide. Thus national environment plan is vitally needed in Tajikistan to save her own people and those living down stream, particularly in the calamity zone around the Aral Sea.

Aral Sea of 1960 and today - A loss of three-quarters of it's volume.
Aral Sea of 1960 and today - A loss of three-quarters of it's volume.
7. Conclusions. Some pertinent conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing: -

  • Central Asia is on conflicting course with the nature; making determined efforts to devastate it in strategic dimension first and then; when nature reacts to punish them for their follies; the state functionaries get together to wipe tears off some of their people for a while and slip again to the state of oblivion.

  • What transpires perhaps that recovery of Aral Sea through two desiccation of 4th and 17th centuries affords them the pivot to hinge their hope that nature would bring solution itself. May be, as it had happened twice and may be it does not. It is the second possibilities for which they have to evolve contingency plans.

  • Woefully they are not putting their heart and soul in averting the tragedy of 20th century, which might creep through 21st century for a while before annihilating them all, and sundry.

  • International community may be willing to help but first they have to demonstrate positively the aligning of domestic policies and intra-state consensus.

  • World community may well know that Russia holds a trump card of executing ‘Sib-aral’ as a viable alternative to avert CARs Aral Sea catastrophe but at what cost she plays it; the diplomacy would dictate the outcome internationally.

  • It is also certain that Russian would have a price tag on “Sib-aral”, which is of course their privilege as a sovereign state. Russia has a choice to heed to commercialism or to her moral obligation to undo a tragedy, engineered by her. None of the options adopted would fault her anyway.

8. Recommendations. Aral Sea catastrophe, writes Bakhtior A Islamov, has become one of the biggest ecological disasters of the twentieth century. Any attempt to refresh CARs on the modes and methodology to execute the known strategies is not possible in a short space because it is a vast subject, justifying research as a separate issue. Briefly said, to save the drying up and dying Aral and to overcome the catastrophic consequences, both emergency and long-term measures are needed. It is imperative to address causes and consequences of the problem simultaneously. These states with the assistance of international community (multinational organizations, like the World Bank and other UN outfits) and bilateral development assistance by organizations of industrialized and developing countries (U.S. Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey, Kuwait and others) have already joined the Aral Survival Battle in some form or another to implement the Aral Sea Basin Program. The main areas of present and nearest future concerns are two: water and sustainable human development. The sagacity of CARs would decide how best could they put up a joint face to collaborate, absorb and execute the concerted efforts to achieve the ends. World Community and International Organizations may be able to push the horses (CARs) to the water but drink, they have to themselves.

  • Water. Hot pursuit strategy has to be pursed by the governments hosting the tragedy. All planned water projects and improvements contemplated in the sanitation system be put in gear as short term measures since these are within their convenient domain. Those already launched be set free of red-tapism and official impediments so that the advantages could reach the beneficiaries without further loss of time while priority is given to those located in the ‘calamity zone.’ All governments must abide by the measures to allow agreed inflow of water quantities into Amu and Syr Darya to restore its water surface gradually to the levels of 1960s. It would also entail diversification of crops culture from cotton monoculture to drought resisting grain crops and fodder to restore pasturelands. It would call for strengthening the legal basis for an agency to operate within and the trans- boundaries, with CARs representatives but under the auspices of World Bank or UNDP. CARs should keep Russia engaged in dialogues on “Sib-Aral” project also to augment Aral Sea’s healthy ecological impact even if they manage to impose check on declining Aral Sea.

  • Sustainable Human Development. It is vitally important to launch urgent humanitarian measures for the people living in calamity zone by UNDP, UNICEF and other NGOs to mitigate the bite of the monster. At the same time WHO should monitor the health and environmental degradation issues and awaken the world community and the local governments about the need to act with urgency and effect. Training the locals to create indigenous capability among the CARs people with the desired expertise is aimed at by international organizations that could later handle long-term approaches to water and land use and other agro technical methods. UNESCO could aptly play role in promoting education and preserving rich cultural heritage of the region.