- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

KOKARAL, Kazakhstan — Work is ending on a World Bank-financed dike intended to reverse the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, one of the planet’s greatest environmental blunders.

Dictator Josef Stalin — in power from 1941 until his death in 1953 — wanted to make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cotton, which is used for gunpowder as well as clothing. Stalin’s successors during the 1960s and ‘70s let limitless amounts of irrigation water be tapped from the Amu Darya River in the south and the Syr Darya River in the northeast — the sole sources of water for the Aral Sea — to irrigate thirsty cotton fields.

Scientists say growing cotton in a desert is certain to waste water, much smaller quantities of which could produce abundant food.

In addition, the way Uzbeks irrigate their cotton from the Amu Darya, the larger of the two rivers, is very wasteful. Still, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of its republics, Uzbekistan’s government, for which cotton is the main hard-currency earner, continues the disastrous policy.

As a result, the world’s third-largest lake, which once supplied 50,000 tons of fish per year, lost 90 percent of its volume in the past half-century. Its water became so salty most of the fish died.

What the Soviets did not anticipate was that the dried former seabed would spawn dust storms that spread salt, pesticides and fertilizers, damaging the region’s already fragile semidesert and turning its inhabitants into some of the least healthy in the world, with anemia figures topping 90 percent.

The drying of the sea split it in two: the northern Small Aral sea in Kazakhstan, which is fed by the Syr Darya, and the southern Big Aral, in Uzbekistan, fed — some years, if it rains — by the Amu Darya.

Today, workers in Kokaral are putting the finishing touches on a five-mile-long dike that will hold up the Syr Darya’s waters until its level rises by 10 feet, reducing salinity to levels that will allow the fish to return and water to flood about 300 square miles of now-dry seabed.

The $85 million project will revive one of the most desolate, poverty-stricken areas in the world. For Almatbek Ismalayev, 33, a former fisherman from the village of Tastubek, it cannot come too soon.

“They used to call our town a ‘millionaire town,’ because we always exceeded our fish quota,” he said. “We used to have 100 houses and we lived well, but now we have 20 and we don’t even have electricity anymore.”

Mr. Ismalayev, like many others, is awaiting for the day when perch, carp and flounder once again fill their nets — and their wallets.

But at a recent scientific conference on the Aral Sea in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s economic capital, Uzbek scientists criticized the project, saying Kazakhstan’s gain would be Uzbekistan’s loss, as some of the Syr Darya water feeding the Small Aral trickled into the Big Aral before the dam was built.

They said relations between the two most powerful countries in Central Asia are bad and getting worse. Even senior officials declined to be quoted criticizing the Kazakh plan for fear of inflaming the situation.

But scientists like Jean-Francois Cretaux of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the French space agency, say precise satellite observations indicate the water from Kazakhstan has little effect on Uzbekistan’s Big Aral.

“The Big Aral is evaporating so fast that the Syr Darya contribution is negligible,” he said during a trip to Kazakhstan. “Without it, the Big Aral will keep on dropping until it reaches equilibrium. Then it will join the salt lakes of the world, like the one near Utah’s capital and the Dead Sea in Israel.”

Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea specialist from Western Michigan University, said the raising of the Small Aral level is “the largest-scale experiment to restore the ecology of a large lake ever attempted.”

Speaking on the same trip, Mr. Micklin said scientific monitoring of the revival of the Small Aral would be valuable for a smaller but far costlier project just south of Los Angeles: Saving the northern half of the Salton Sea, also threatened by increasing salinity.

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