A Mighty Sea Slowly Becomes a Mud-Flat Desert

The Aral, once the fourth-largest inland sea in the world, is disappearing as rivers are diverted and leaders fail to work together

Maral Kinjaleyeva remembers swimming in the Aral Sea as a young girl in the 1960s. Her whitewashed house with faded blue trim is just a few feet away from the boardwalk and fence where the sea used to be.

But now the rusted fence, decorated with sea gulls and sailboats, looks over a mud field littered with rusted fishing boats. No more beach. No more sea.

The Aral Sea ecological disaster is just one of the problems Central Asia inherited from a Soviet Union obsessed with growing cash crops such as cotton and rice - which require heavy irrigation.

Fed by the giant Syrdarya and Amudarya Rivers, the Aral was once the world's fourth-largest inland sea. Its frighteningly fast disappearance over the past 20 years has left miles of unusable salt- and pesticide-polluted land and a destitute people.

Many of the fishing villages that dotted the shores of the Aral are now landlocked, and few have access to clean water. Some villagers, occasionally with the help of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are trying to turn their lives around, raising cattle instead of fishing, planting trees to stop encroaching deserts, and opening kiosks to sell cheap Chinese products.

But Ms. Kinjaleyeva's hometown, Aralsk, at the north end of the sea, is more like a ghost town. Once an active port with fish-processing factories, many of its houses and shops now are boarded up. The town's largest store, which serves a population of 35,000 people, is empty except for a few loaves of bread.

In spite of attempts to run a hospital and TV station and keep schools open, there is no escaping the feeling this is a lost town. Cows and dogs wander the dirt roads. There are no trees, the electricity goes off for a week at a time, unemployment and alcoholism are rampant, and there are reports of many health problems attributed to the pollution.

Needed: a comprehensive plan

No easy solutions are at hand. NGOs have tried stop-gap measures to prevent the situation from deteriorating. But the root of the problem lies in the inability of the five Central Asian countries whose rivers feed the Aral Sea to agree on a comprehensive, enforceable plan that would save the sea from disappearing while still providing each state with enough water.

The Amudarya River runs through war-stricken Tajikistan and politically closed Turkmenistan, then feeds vast fields of cotton in Uzbekistan before finally flowing into the lower, larger part of the Aral Sea.

The Syrdarya has its headwaters in Kyrgyzstan, briefly passes through Uzbekistan, provides Kazakstan with most of its agricultural irrigation, and ends in the upper, smaller section of the Aral.

Because each country puts its own national interests first, long-term planning and cooperation have suffered.

The five states gather once a year to try to hammer out natural-resource barter deals, exchanging coal or gas for water, for example. But these deals can quickly fall apart, as one did earlier this year when Kazakstan failed to deliver coal to Kyrgyzstan. The latter then threatened to open its dams and flood Kazakstan at the wrong time of year, damaging its agricultural production.

In Uzbekistan, cotton represents the largest cash crop, too crucial to the economy to stop production even though cotton needs high volumes of water.

In Kazakstan, rice is almost as important and also requires large amounts of water. Berdibek Saparbaev, the akim (leader) of Kazakstan's Kzyl Orda state, where the Aral is located, is more keen on increasing rice exports than saving water.

Kyrgyzstan lacks significant natural resources, and officials there say they need to make the Syrdarya's headwaters as profitable as possible. This means using it to make electricity, even if that means withholding water at times when the other two states need it for agriculture.

Local officials in Kazakstan - mostly educated in the Soviet system - are loath to discuss agricultural policy, even though Soviet-imposed rice and cotton production helped lead to the 50-foot drop in the Aral, leaving a desert strewn with tiny seashells for miles around.

Because rice has been grown here for so long, the economy is geared toward it, and the government depends on the profits. It continues to control agricultural production and water distribution. Farmers have not been given incentives to diversify. Diversification would be less profitable in the short term, but may be the only solution in the long term.

Kazakstan's government dictates how much water each region receives and controls the opening and closing of the dam system to feed rice fields at the best times. When the rice no longer needs water, the canals are closed. Crops such as fruit and vegetables are not a priority. Yet officials acknowledge these foods are missing in the population's diet.

According to Western diplomats and water-policy experts in Almaty, Kazakstan's capital, any solution will need to include the establishment of a fair water-pricing policy, cost sharing, private water-user associations, the privatization of farms, proper irrigation and drainage systems, and safe drinking water. Leaders of the five Central Asian countries have agreed to these - but have yet to put words into action.

"Water is vital and is the stuff that wars are fought over. So to bring people together to talk and agree on water-use policy has to be done step by step," explains one Western diplomat.

Ernest Guessin, head engineer of the Almaty-based Institute of Hydro-Economy, together with local akims, is pushing for the construction of a multimillion-dollar dam between the top half and bottom half of the Aral Sea.

"Without this dam, the small [north] Aral Sea will evaporate," he says. "We will never be able to rehabilitate the sea to its former size, but the dam will at least help maintain the current sea level in the northern area."

Salt, chemical pollution the water

But without a guaranteed water supply from its source, the Syrdarya River in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, no amount of dam-building will help save the sea or restore the economy.

Along with supply, water quality also must be addressed. Long-term use of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers has contaminated the water. Natural uranium has seeped in from underground, and irrigation techniques have steadily increased the salinity of both the land and water to the point that, in some areas, they are almost unusable.

The drastic shrinkage of the Aral has led to salt and toxic-dust storms, and desertification. The United States, Europe, and the World Bank and other international organizations are working with Kazakstan to resolve the problem.

Oil reserves promise a boomtown

Paradoxically, Kazakstan also sits on huge oil and gas reserves that have attracted international interest. Most of these resources have been found in western Kazakstan, but Japanese researchers say there also may be considerable deposits in the Aral Sea region. This growing interest in oil is at least partially responsible for heightened interest in shoring up Kazakstan's wobbly economy and virtually nonexistent infrastructure.

For local leaders, oil, rather than water, represents the best solution. "Soon we'll be another Kuwait," boasts Alashbai Baimurzayev, akim of Aralsk. "This will be a booming town full of business!"

But for those like Maral Kinjaleyeva, who are just trying to make it from day to day, this promise may not come soon enough.

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