- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The first phase of a project to rehabilitate the northern part of Central Asia’s desiccated Aral Sea has been completed far ahead of schedule, with more than 300 square miles of formerly dry seabed already covered by water.

The drying up of three-quarters of the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes, is considered one of the biggest man-made ecological disasters.

The $85 million rehabilitation project, funded by the World Bank, consisted of improving irrigation and other water works along the Syr Darya River, which flows into what is now known as the Northern Sea, and building an eight-mile dike to raise the level of that part of the sea by 10 feet and reduce its salinity. Due to excessive draining, the Aral Sea split into three parts — two in the south and one in the north.

“We’re almost there,” said Masood Ahmad, the World Bank official in charge of the project. “We expect we’ll have achieved our goal this April.”

“In the satellite imagery, you can clearly see the Northern Sea has risen significantly since last August,” said Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea specialist at Western Michigan University.

When the project was approved in 1999, it was expected that it would take five to 10 years to fill the Northern Sea, but the irrigation rehabilitation work cut waste and increased the river’s flow into the sea by a greater margin than expected, he said.

Second phase

A second phase, to be carried out by the government of Kazakhstan, is expected to raise the sea by another 13 feet by the end of the decade.

The brackish Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south, was once the world’s third-largest inland body of water, but the Soviet government chose to sacrifice its rich fishery to attain self-sufficiency in cotton, diverting the waters from the Syr and Amu Darya rivers that had sustained the sea to irrigate cotton fields.

In fewer than 50 years, it lost 75 percent of its surface, baring a seabed poisoned with toxic herbicides and fertilizers that sent respiratory disease rates in the region soaring.

By the time Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan became independent, days before the Soviet Union was dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991, the two main ports, Moynak and Aralsk, were more than 50 miles away from the water. The most southern part is so salty that only brine shrimp survive in it.

In Aralsk, a hospital physician, Dr. Marat Turemulatov, said cheap, abundant and fresh fish from the sea have already appeared in local markets.

“Before, we only had small amounts of fish from the lakes,” he said. “The sea had become too salty for most species. But now, we’re seeing fish from the sea in the markets.”

Health will improve

“We have an epidemic of tuberculosis and we have chronic anemia, and poor nutrition is a major component in both,” Dr. Turemulatov said in a telephone interview from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s economic capital. “With people eating more fresh fish, their health is going to improve,” he said.

The key to the success of the project lay in the waterworks along the Syr Darya. The other river that once sustained the sea, the much larger Amu Darya to the south, loses nearly all its water to irrigation so that most years, not a drop reaches the sea.

Deterioration of the river’s hydraulic infrastructure had considerably reduced the amount of water it could carry.

According to Mr. Ahmad, the World Bank official in charge of the restoration project, when mountainous Kyrgyzstan upstream needed to release water through its dams in winter to generate electricity, the river downstream was already full, and the water used to generate electricity had to be diverted to lakes created along the river.

But in summer, when demand for water for irrigation is highest, the water’s level is naturally low, so until now little has reached the Aral Sea.

After six years of rebuilding sluices, dams and channels along the Syr Darya’s descent from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan (not shown on the accompanying map) through Kazakhstan, its capacity of 35,000 cubic feet per second has been doubled, Mr. Ahmad said. Thus, a far greater proportion of the water released by Kyrgyzstan in winter now reaches the Aral.

In addition, Uzbekistan had protested that the water used to raised the level of the northern Aral would be that much water that would fail to flow into the southern sea. Now, Mr. Ahmad said, because the Syr Darya’s flow has been so dramatically increased, the southern sea will actually benefit from the project.

Still, whether it will be enough to compensate the effects of evaporation in the southern part of the sea remains doubtful.

Aral once rich in fish

According to Dr. Nikolai Aladin of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, a Russian biologist who has been studying the sea for nearly three decades, the Aral was exceptionally rich in fish.

“Before it dried out and became too salty, it had about 100 pounds of fish per acre,” he said.

Aralsk once had one of the biggest canneries in the Soviet Union, and the whole sea produced 50,000 metric tons of fish a year.

But from the 1960s, the Soviet Union made a decision that self-sufficiency in cotton was more important than fish, and the waters of the two rivers were greatly diverted to irrigate cotton fields on a vast scale.

By the end of the century, the Aral Sea had lost 70 percent of its surface and retreated nearly 50 miles from Aralsk. Hundreds of rusting ships now dot the former sea bottom, providing shade for camels, horses and scrap metal to scavengers.

The collapse of the Soviet economy left the population of what was already a backward region in deep poverty just as fresh fish — a vital source of protein and minerals necessary to prevent anemia — became scarce and expensive. As for fresh fruit and vegetables, none grow in the region’s salty soil, so when Soviet-era subsidized transportation from other regions ceased, these too became too costly for the local population.

Today, residents say, not only are the markets full of cheap, fresh carp, pike perch and flounder, but Aralsk has already resumed exports of fish to Russia and Ukraine.

Changing times

The World Bank project was signed in 1999, when Kazakhstan was still in crisis. Now, seven years later, the economy has nearly tripled and state coffers are overflowing from income from oil and metals exports.

With a nearly guaranteed future as one of the world’s top five oil exporters, with a ratio of oil income to population similar to Saudi Arabia’s, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced that some of this money will be used to raise the Northern Sea’s level another 12 to 20 feet.

This would cover another 400 square miles of dry seabed and restore the Northern Sea to about two-thirds of its previous size. It would also bring water back to within a couple of miles of Aralsk.

The project is estimated to cost about $120 million and will involve digging upstream canals, raising the dike or both. It would achieve one of biggest reversals of an environmental disaster in history, though there is no hope of filling the southern, larger part of the sea, specialists say.

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