SPECIAL REPORT: Life returns to just part of the Aral Sea

Posted: 14 September 2008

Recent reports of the regeneration of the North Aral Sea in Central Asia, have raised hopes that one day the whole of this great inland sea, which once covered over 64,000 km², might one day recover in the southern Aral region, now largely reduced to a dusty, polluted desert. But, says Don Hinrichsen, in this Special Report, that remains a very faint hope, despite the millions spent, and millions more due to be spent in the coming years, in reviving the smaller northern Sea.

Although all five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - have banded together to tackle the Aral Sea crisis, the only viable rescue plan on the table is now bringing life back to the northern Aral Sea, the portion in Kazakhstan.

Aral Sea 1989 & 2003
Aral Sea 1989 & 2003
These two satellite images show the dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea between 1989 (left) and 2003. Photo © NASA Earth Observatory
There the water level has risen faster than predicted - expanding by nearly 1000 km² - from 2,550 km² in 2003 to 3,300 km² in 2008 - bringing back both fish and other wildlife. But barely a drop has reached the southern Sea, and is unlikely to do so. From there I discovered a tragically different story.

Gazing out over what used to be the Aral Sea's southern shore from a high ridge on the edge of the former fishing town of Muynak, Jasmurad Kenesbay pulls up the collar on this threadbare coat and bends his head into a fierce December wind. "I don't think I will ever fish again in the sea," he states with finality. "As the sea has died, so too has this village. Our entire economy has been destroyed and so have our lives."

The sight from this perch, known as Tigrovi Hvost (Tiger's Back) is sobering. As far as the eye can see, the former seabed has been transformed into a salt pan desert, a grim graveyard littered with the rusting remains of fishing trawlers and barges and the bleached bones of cattle, which perished from eating salt-poisoned vegetation.

This was the scene 13 years ago, and the view has not changed. The most noticeable difference is that Muynak is now a virtual ghost town, with three quarters of its inhabitants moving away in search of employment in other areas of Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous republic now part of Uzbekistan which folds around the southern portion of what used to be the sea.

The fate of Muynak is closely tied to the fate of the Aral Sea itself. In 1950, Muynak was an island in the generous delta of the Amu Darya River, one of two major rivers systems that replenished the sea with some 50 km³ of freshwater a year. By 1962, four years after huge canals began to siphon off water from the river to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, Muynak became a peninsula, shaped like a crooked finger pointing west. Within a decade (1970), the sea was 10 kilometres away from the former seaport. In 1980, the sea had retreated 40 kilometres, by the mid-1990s it was 70 kilometres away and today it has receded more than 100 kilometres away across a trackless wasteland.

Rich fisheries

Until the late 1960s, more than 3,000 fishermen worked the rich waters around Muynak, hauling in some 22 different commercial species of fish, including carp, bream, pike-perch, roach, barbell and a local variety of sturgeon.

"In 1957, our last record year for fishing," recalls Kenesbay, Muynak fishing collectives brought in nearly 26,000 tons of fish, accounting for over half of the total catch for the entire sea."

That same year Muynak produced 1.1 million farmed muskrat skins which were sold to furriers and made into fashionable coats and hats. "We had a good economy then," says Kenesbay. "I belonged to one of 12 state farms which specialized in fishing. We were hauling in more than enough fish, and everyone had money to spend."

That soon changed with the water diversions. "All commercial fishing ceased in the Aral Sea by 1982," points out Kenesbay. "The sea was too far away and too saline to sustain fisheries."

Changing climate

With irrigation needs increasing steadily, the sea continued to contract year after year as more water was diverted from the two river systems which fed it - the Amu Darya in the south, which entered the sea from Uzbek territory, and the Syr Darya in the north, which entered the sea through Kazakhstan. By the late 1990s, the amount of water supplied by these two rivers amounted to a trickle, a mere 2-3 km³.

Between 1960 and 1997, its surface areas shrank by more than half, from 64,500 km² to less than 30,000 km². At the same time, the water level dropped more than 20 metres and its salinity tripled. More than 50 lakes in the Amu Darya delta dried up and its wetlands shrivelled from half a million hectares to less than 20,000. Once the world's fourth largest lake, the sea had lost so much water volume that what remains is now contained in three separate basins, two of which remain highly saline.

Stranded tanker at Aralsk on theAral Sea's north shore in Kazakstan.© Don Hinrichsen
Stranded tanker at Aralsk on theAral Sea's north shore in Kazakstan.© Don Hinrichsen
Stranded tanker at Aralsk on the Aral Sea's north shore in Kazakhstan in 1995. Photo © Don Hinrichsen
The collapse of fisheries was only the first ecological link to come apart. The sea used to regulate climate in the region, buffering the cold winds that roared out of Siberia in the winter, and acting as a huge air conditioner in the summer. With the demise of the sea, this climate modifying function has been lost. The climate around the sea has changed, becoming more continental, with shorter, hotter, drier summers and longer, colder, snowless winters. The growing season around the sea has been reduced to an average of 170 days, fewer than the 200 frost-free days needed to grow cotton.

The Karakum and Kyzylkum Deserts now meet on the Aral's former seabed, forming a new desert, the Aralkum. The three million hectares of the seabed exposed to weathering has accelerated soil salinization and desertification around the sea. Dust storms scour the seabed and neighbouring areas, scattering salt and pesticide residues over the whole region. By 1996, roughly 75 million metric tons of dust and salt were being dumped on surrounding lands. Salts from the Aral Sea have even been traced as far away as Belarus.

Health crisis

Neglect of the Aral Sea has translated into a human tragedy of mounting proportions. With the desiccation of the sea have come health problems on an unprecedented scale. Dr. Oral Ataniyazova, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, based in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, thinks most of the region's illnesses are environmentally induced. "We have high levels of heavy metals, salts and other toxic substances in our drinking water supplies, and the bulk of our vegetables are contaminated with organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, which was still used here until the mid-1990s."

Currently, nearly one quarter of Karakalpak's drinking water does not comply with WHO drinking water standards. And more than one third of the residents in the northern part of Karakalpakstan, near the former Aral Sea, have only 8-11 litres of water per person per day, far below WHO's recommended level of 50 litres per day.

Moreover, the salt content of groundwater has risen from 1.3 grams per litre in the 1960s to between 3 and 5 grams per litre in 2006.

As a consequence, claims Dr. Ataniyazova, "Karakalpakia has among the highest levels of maternal and infant mortality in the former Soviet Union." As of 1996, maternal deaths were around 120 per 100,000 live births, and infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births. According to a region wide health survey carried out by Dr. Ataniyazova in the mid-1990s, and repeated in 2000-05, this is only the surface of a health catastrophe that has deepened over the past 13 years. Her findings are disturbing. Kidney and liver diseases, especially cancers, have increased some 30-40 fold, arthritic diseases by 60-fold and chronic bronchitis by 30-fold.

Women's woes

But the worst health conditions are borne by Karakalpak's women. "Over 20 per cent of all our young women, aged 13-19, have kidney diseases," claims Dr. Ataniyazova, who is director of the regional NGO "PERZENT" -- the Karakalpak Center for Reproductive Health and Environment - and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2000. "Another 23 per cent suffer from thyroid dysfunctions. And many women have high levels of lead, zinc and organochlorines (DDT) in their blood."

Among the most disturbing results of Dr. Ataniyazova's research is the fact that chronic anaemia among girls and women is now the region's most serious health concern. High rates are found in all age classes - 87 per cent of teenagers are anaemic, as are 91 per cent of non-pregnant women and a staggering 99 per cent of pregnant women.

To put this into perspective, observes Ataniyazova, in the early 1980s only 17-20 per cent of pregnant women were anaemic. "Currently, nearly all of them haemorrhage while giving birth," notes Ataniyazova, "another reason why the maternal mortality rate is so high."

A five-fold increase in birth defects is also attributed to the health crisis triggered by the death of the southern Aral Sea. In 1980 there were only three birth defects per 1000 live births in Karakalpakia, "but this increased to 50 birth defects per 1000 live births by 2000," points out Ataniyazova.

Drinking poison

The real killer of the land and one of the main culprits behind the health crisis is salt. Thanks to decades of indiscriminate irrigation that paid more attention to centrally planned quotas than the state of the environment, nearly the whole of Karakalpakia is either salinized or waterlogged.

Driving through the heart of the republic along the Amu Darya River, the visitor passes field after field covered with what looks like winter's first light snow. The "snow" is salt deposits which have worked their way to the surface, a result of improper drainage of the soils and the overuse of irrigation water.

Irrigation efficiencies are no better than 40-50 per cent - the rest is lost in transit; the water soaks into unlined canals, or is evaporated. In other areas, stagnant pools of water mark the groundwater level, which has risen dramatically over the past 30 years - another result of poor drainage.

"There is an old Uzbek proverb which goes like this," says Usuatdin Matkarimov, Chief of the Karakalpak State Committee for Nature Protection: 'at the beginning you drink water, at the end you drink poison.' That sums up the plight of Karakalpakia, we're at the wrong end of the watershed."

Northern success

It is a different tale in the northern Sea. In 2001, the government of Kazakhstan teamed up with the World Bank to launch the Syr Darya and Northern Aral Sea Project. The Kazakh government has ploughed some £50 million into shoring up embankments, dykes and irrigation canals along the Syr Darya's dried out delta, while the World Bank provided a loan of $64.5 million (about £33 million) to construct the Kok-Aral Dam, which stretches 13 kilometres along the narrows which separates the northern from the southern basin.

North Aral Sea expansion
North Aral Sea expansion
These satellite images show the expansion of the North Aral Sea between 2005 (bottom) and 2007. Photo © NASA Earth Observatory
The dam, completed in August 2005, now traps water in the northern Aral Sea, increasing water depth and providing more irrigation water for farmers in the recovering delta region.

Thanks to the dam and upstream engineering works which channel more water into the sea, the fast rising waters are rejuvenating desiccated wetland ecosystems and providing lake habitat for some 15 varieties of commercial fish, most released from hatcheries. Wildlife is also returning, including water fowl, Asiatic foxes and wild boars.

"Effective project works upstream on the Syr Darya and good inflows to the river, thanks to new waterworks, contributed to the fast pace of success in this project," remarked Masood Ahmed, World Bank team leader for the dam project.

Black gold

Though the northern Aral Sea is still briny, the salt content is dropping, as more freshwater from the Syr Darya enters the enclosed basin. There are plans underfoot to reintroduce the Aral Sea sturgeon, once salinity levels have dropped further. The sturgeon produce what local fishermen call "black gold" - caviar.

The stranded former sea port of Aralsk is already benefiting from the water works and the new dam. The sea is gradually coming back and on a clear day its shimmering waters can be spotted on the distant horizon, something none of the townsfolk have seen for nearly three decades. An entire generation has grown up without ever having seen the sea or experienced its cool embrace on a blistering summer day.

Fishing is also being revived. In 2007 Aralsk processed over 2,000 tons of fish for local consumption and export, a feat not possible for nearly three decades.

The town's mayor, Nazhmedin Musabaev, has also noticed a beneficial change in the region's climate since the dam was built. "We have rain in the spring again, in April, May and June, which has moderated the climate and provided more water for irrigated crops," he explained. As a result, the boiling hot summers are a little cooler, there are more fodder grasses for grazing animals and fewer dust storms during the winter.

Death sentence

During the next phase of the restoration project, another 20 km long dyke will be built, staring in 2009 at a cost of some £150 million. At the same time, irrigation efficiencies are being improved along the Syr Darya, providing more water for irrigated agriculture, along with more inflows to the sea.

Though it will still take a decade before the northern Aral Sea is restored, the two southern basins in Uzbekistan are doomed. The Uzbeks seem more intent on exploring for oil in the former seabed than in rescuing what's left of the sea.

The two southern basins, now linked tenuously at two points, continue to wither. "We are doing what is possible for the small sea in the north, but the southern Aral Sea is beyond saving," comments Joop Stoutjesdkik, the World Bank's head of irrigation programmes in the region. "Even if agriculture and irrigation stopped, it would probably take 50 years for the [southern] sea to come back."

In Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Dr. Oral Ataniyazova is saddened by the lack of action on the part of the Uzbek government. "Just as it was decided to grow cotton, use pesticides and divert the rivers for irrigation, so it has now been decided to let the Aral Sea die," she laments. "But no one then or now has bothered to ask the local people for permission, or sought their views."

Don Hinrichsen is a contributing editor to this website.

Related links:

A report (with satellite images)on the recovery of the North Aral Sea, in The Telegraph may be seen at: here.

UNEP - Aral Sea.

TVE's Earth Report: Back from the Brink.