|Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia
Headwaters of the Syr Darya River
The Aral Sea used to be an endless expanse of bountiful waters. Now only burning sands remain, and graveyards of ghost ships. On the salt-saturated seabed where the sea once ran deep, lie dessicated hulks of what only 50 years ago were great fishing fleets.
This vast sea was an oasis of continental proportions, moderating the temperature, humidifying the air and the land, providing livelihoods for nearly a hundred thousand fishermen. To the east lay the vastness of asia, to the south the great ramparts of the Himalaya.
Since the dawn of civilization the Aral sea, 66,000 square kilometers in size, defied the dry deserts of Central Asia, and benefit the climates of the world.
Drying up the Aral Sea is considered by many environmentalists to be the biggest environmental disaster of all time, a disaster that might only be eclipsed by the total meltdown of Earth’s Ice Caps. Canals killed the Aral Sea, canals built by Soviet engineers with the eager assistance of local farmers, to increase agricultural production in their Central Asian republics. Between 1960 and 1980 the cotton industry in Central Asia has burgeoned, irrigated by northward flowing rivers that used to fill the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.
|View from Earth Orbit
The Aral Sea in 1985
The headwaters of the Syr Darya are Himalayan glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. From this breathtaking region, the veritable Switzerland of Asia, the Syr Darya cascades north, eventually delivering a flow of 70-80 cubic kilometers per year into the Aral Basin. Kyrgyzstan has constructed dams and reservoirs with huge water diversion potential, as most of the flow of the Syr Darya is directly from watersheds within Kyrgyzstan. The Amu Darya has a northward flow per year of 30-40 cubic kilometers, with its headwaters in Afgahnistan. These headwater countries might release more water to their rivers, if they knew more water would go to the Aral Sea.
The countries that border the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan on the south and Kazakhstan on the north have the greatest amount of irrigated land; in all the Aral Basin now has an astonishing 87,600 square kilometers of irrigated crops, mostly cotton, up from a small fraction of that amount fifty years ago. These crops now use up virtually all the water that used to make it to the Aral Sea. The farming economies of virtually all countries in the Aral Basin are dependent on water from these rivers.
In 1950 water reaching the Aral Sea totaled 50 cubic kilometers each year, now the sea only gets 3, about one-twentieth of what it needs. Within 50 years, this water evaporated and wasn’t replaced, nearly 1,000 cubic kilometers of water volume. The sea shrank from 66,000 square kilometers to less than 10,000. The climate of the Aral Basin, with an area of 1.3 million square kilometers, was ruined by the sea’s demise. Coastline and hinterland are decimated by storms of salt and sand, dried away and desolate. Occupying a pivotal position in the arid center of the vast Asian continent, the death of the Aral Sea has altered weather patterns permanently, creating more continental extremes as weather fronts no longer encounter the moderating humidity from the evaporating Aral Sea. Soviet engineers didn’t just take 50 cubic kilometers out of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea each year, in equal measure they disrupted an evaporative water inflow into the air. Fewer continental clouds.
For only (USA)$30 million, the rice and cotton farmers in the most salinated fields of the irrigated Aral basin could have their crop bought out. They could sit out the summer with their harvest money already in hand, no need to sow the seeds, no need to watch over the fields, or to harvest, or to water. This relatively paltry sum of $30 million would release enough water to double the flow into the Aral Sea, from 3 cubic kilometers per year to 6, a very, very good bargain. Any takers? Major environmental organizations use many times that much money each year for marketing and legal fees, and as for the corporate world, a lot of them spend $30 million the way the rest of us might go buy a cup of coffee.
|“Water is a Turkmen’s life,
a horse is his wings…”
An Ancient Turkmen Proverb
One joyful event was the independence of five Soviet Republics in 1991, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan. Proud and ancient lands, these nations have flowered since they gained autonomy. But now the Aral Basin, with Russia included, numbers six countries where there once was one. Cooperation is more complicated. Some have suggested the Aral Sea itself become its own 7th country, at the center of the basin, a remediation zone that could more easily coordinate agreements with all involved and quickly attract investment. In any case, upstream countries might be induced to contribute more water to the downstream flow if they knew more water would end up in the Aral Sea.
Another way to save the Aral Sea is through more efficient irrigation systems. The Kara Kum canal, for example, the centerpiece of the Soviet built system of huge diversion canals, lacks concrete lining for much of its 1,300 kilometer length. In all there are over 60 diversion canals that tap into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Most of them lack lining. Improving the canal system and overall irrigation efficiency can probably give as much as 20 kilometers per year of water back to the Aral, not nearly enough, but far more than at present.
|Aral Sea 2005
Present efforts to save the Aral are noble but yield meager results. The northern Aral Sea which has split off from the Aral Sea has stablized and has a tiny fishery reestablished. Unfortunately the Northern Aral Sea, or Little Aral, is insignificant compared to the entire Aral Sea. Moreover, it lies on higher ground north of the larger Aral sea bottom, and the fishermen in the region are building a dam on the former seabed to keep the sea from overflowing. Unless more water arrives, well they should, conservation will refill the lower Aral sometime between thousands of years and never. Conservation is only part of the solution.
|Aral Sea 2010
The best way to save the Aral Sea had been planned all along. When the Soviets built the Kara Kum canal system, to make up for the loss of water to the Aral Sea they intended to build two more canals to divert water from other major rivers into the Aral Basin. One canal would move water south-west from the southern flowing Volga, and another longer one would move water south by southeast from the northern flowing Ob-Irtysh. Both of these rivers are far larger than the Amu Darya and Syr Darya that water the Aral basin.
|VOLGA & OB REFILL ARAL SEA|
|Canals (orange) divert up to 100 cubic km water
per year to the Aral Sea from the Volga & Ob Rivers.
Yellow areas = elevation over 200 meters
Map Scale: 100 pixels = 1,000 kilometers
The Volga, which has its headwaters on the western slopes of the Urals, has a flow of around 240 cubic kilometers per year and flows into the Caspian Sea. The Ob-Irtysh, drawing its moisture from the vast Central Siberian Plain, has a flow of around 385 cubic kilometers per year and flows north into the Arctic Ocean. These rivers, both of which serve regions with an overabundance of water, could each have under ten percent of their flow tapped and the Aral Sea would get an extra 60 cubic kilometers per year, more than making up for the diversions that have robbed the Aral for all these years. Indeed that was the plan, fifty years ago. But the priorities of the cold war slowed Soviet investment in new canals, and when in 1989 the USSR broke up, the plan was forgotten. Until now.
|Aral Sea 2015
-starting to refill-
Russian President Vladmir Putin, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and many other prominent Russian political leaders and eminent scientists are stepping forward to revive the plan to save the Aral Sea by constructing canals to tap Russian rivers. The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has also endorsed reviving the project. The smaller of the canals was intended to transfer water from the Volga river to the Aral Sea. Today, building this canal, 800 kilometers long, 200 meters wide and 16 meters deep, would cost about (USA)$8 billion. Such a canal would tap into the Volga river in the Ural uplands, running along the contours of the earth to drain into the Aral basin and into the shrunken sea. Depending on the route, because of a lack of high altitude barriers between the Volga watershed and the Aral basin, this canal might require little or even no pumping stations.
|Aral Sea 2020
The larger canal was designed to run from the confluence of the Ob and Irtysh rivers, 2,500 kilometers south through the lowlands along a major tributary called Tobol River, over the low hills separating the Western Siberian plain from the Aral basin. This canal, equally wide and deep while longer and requiring more pumping stations than the one built from the Volga would cost about $22 billion if it were built today. A canal from the Ob-Irtysh to the Aral Sea would be pretty big, but it is comparable in scope to canals already built all over the world. This canal system is certainly not any more extensive than the sea-killing one already in place to drain the water for crop irrigation, nor than the systems in Western Europe, California, China and elsewhere.
|Aral Sea 2025
It is natural for many environmentalists to ridicule and demonize a plan like this. It is very expensive and constructing the canals will disrupt many local ecosystems. But the long-term benefit far outweighs costs. The biggest environmental disaster in history would be totally reversed. What’s that worth?
Even more compelling to environmentalists are new factors that didn’t exist 50 years ago when the canal system was originally conceived. The Caspian Sea is rising alarmingly, over 2.5 meters in the last 30 years. Nobody knows where it will end. Coastal cities are at risk of inundation. Farmland is being swallowed up. Having a canal to drain 10% or more of the Volga river into the Aral Basin would help manage this crisis.
|Aral Sea 2030
-Gulf Stream ok-
An even bigger environmental reason for building these canals applies to the Ob-Irtysh, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. Many climatologists and hydrologists are concerned about the impact of fresh water flowing into the Arctic. Their models suggest that too much fresh water might have an effect on the Gulf Stream, causing it to no longer wind its way northwards hugging Europe’s western shores, from Spain to Murmansk. Weather in Europe, if no longer warmed by the Gulf Stream’s tropical ocean current, would revert to an ice age. Not a pleasant thought, if you’re sitting outdoors to tea in London. Melting glacial ice and icepack in recent years have allowed unprecedented levels of fresh water to accumulate in the Arctic. Diverting as many as 40 cubic kilometers of fresh water away from the Arctic delta of the Ob-Irtysh would significantly reduce the levels of fresh water in the Arctic, helping preserve the northward flowing Gulf Stream, preventing an imminent ice age.
|Aral Sea 2035
Building two canals to save the Aral Sea, avert Caspian floods, and prevent a European ice age sound like pretty good reasons, but economic reasons also show viability. Bringing back the largest fishery in Central Asia, and having more, smarter irrigation systems would turn this desolate region, victim of man’s hubris, into a garden of the world. At a cost of $30 billion, once these canals were constructed, the Aral could be refilled in twenty years. This money can be put together by the World Bank, or any collection of good-sized Nation States. This construction project could even be funded by private interests. Environmentalists should quit hiring lawyers and start buying bulldozers.
Support from the world environmental movement for refilling the Aral Sea by the only practical means, building more canals, could tip the balance, raising awareness, spreading information, and having a decisive impact on gaining sufficient global political and financial support. If Russian President Putin and others can make this their legacy, the Caspian shore will be saved, the icecaps won’t melt, and ships will sail again upon the vastness and the abundance of a totally refilled Aral Sea.
Ed Ring is the Editor of EcoWorld, based in Sacramento, California, USA.
|LAND AREA & WATER VOLUME FOR VOLGA, OB, & ARAL BASIN|
Turning Siberian Rivers – Pravda
Will the Siberian Rivers flow to Uzbekistan? – Pravda
Asia’s Desert Set to Bloom Again – The Scotsman
The Aral Sea Crisis – BBC
Caspian Environment Programme
Moscow Mayor Plans to Sell Water to the World – Pravda
The Aral Sea: Bank From the Brink? – UNESCO
Portrait of a Doomed Sea – European Space Agency
Optimization of Syr Darya Water & Energy Uses – Water International
Time to Save the Aral Sea? – U.N. Food & Agricultural Organization
Welcome to Siberia (Khanty-Mansiisk) – International Federation of Film Critics
Probability Forecast for Aral Sea Levels – Environment.net
River & Water Facts – U.S. National Park Service
Population & the Future of Renewable Water Supplies – Population Action International
For more information including electricity requirements see:
- Arctic to Aral – How Much Electricity Would the Pumps Require?