The Death of The Aral Sea: Case Study in USSR Ecology

How an irrigation project to increase cotton production created a desert

IN the 1930s, economic planners sitting in thick-walled stone buildings in Moscow set in motion a chain of events that has almost killed an entire sea.

In order to create vast cotton fields in the drylands of Soviet Central Asia, the planners had long irrigation canals dug, fed by the waters of two rivers, the Amu Daria and the Syr Daria, that flow into the inland Aral Sea. In the statistics of the central planners, the project was a huge success. The cotton harvests grew until the Soviet Union became the world's second largest cotton exporter, after China.

But the statistics did not show the effect of diverting most of the river flow into the Aral Sea.

By 1989, the sea was receiving only one-eighth the level of water as in 1960. Its water level had dropped by 47 feet, more than a quarter, and its volume had shrunk by two-thirds. Once the size of North America's Lake Huron, its total area diminished by 44 percent.

The shores of the sea receded, leaving fishing villages tens of miles from the shore. A new desert was created around the sea, with salt strewn in massive dust storms across a vast area.

At the same time, Moscow's demands for cotton cultivation were met with saturation use of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides that flowed into the rivers and canals. The population around the sea, deprived of clean drinking water and living on poisoned soil, experienced rising rates of disease and infant mortality.

"The problem of the Aral Sea is very simple," says Igor Zonn, a specialist on the subject, "The Aral Sea will be dead, not soon and not completely, but it will be dead."

Dr. Zonn and fellow Russian scientist Nikita Glazorsky, head of the Institute of Geology and until recently deputy environment minister of Russia, have been working for a long time to try to save the Aral Sea.

"We've been speaking about this problem for 20 years," he says. "We've written many articles and books, composed reports. But nothing has happened."

The Russian scientists say a technical solution for the sea is already well-formulated. Much of the water is now wasted because of evaporation and drainage out of unlined irrigation canals and primitive irrigation technology.

At least half the 120 cubic kilometer flow of the two rivers could be saved by rebuilding the canals and introducing new irrigation systems. It would be enough to begin to stabilize the Aral Sea at its present level, though not enough to restore it. At the same time there must be a program of health care and a concerted effort to shift the economy away from cotton cultivation, they say.

BUT such measures require resources and a political will that is not present. The breakup of the Soviet Union and its replacement by a loose commonwealth has given the Russian government an opportunity to dump the problem into the laps of the five former Soviet Central Asian states that form the Aral Sea's water basin. This is the source of anger for Central Asians who see the cotton monoculture imposed by Moscow as a classic example of colonial-style exploitation.

"We are left face to face with the Aral Sea problem," Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev said in an address to a meeting of Central Asian leaders held in April. "Meanwhile 97 percent of the cotton of Central Asia and Kazakhstan is taken out to the European part of the Commonwealth of Independent States where the employment of 10 million workers depends on cotton use."

Russia has an ethical responsibility to help, agrees Dr. Glazorsky. "All of us live in this system, and we must solve this problem together."

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