Global water politics and the Aral Sea

Many of the world’s simmering conflicts are in regions where water is shared and scarce. Some believe that water is likely to be a greater source of tension in the 21st Century than oil or any other natural resource. Others think there is still hope.

On 28 July 2010 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution recognizing “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” 122 countries voted in favour of the resolution, no votes against and 41 abstentions. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council adopted its own resolution affirming water and sanitation to be human rights. Such recognition established the obligations that states now have to respect, protect and fulfill the rights to clean water and sanitation. But, as the English proverb goes, there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip.

Millions of years ago, the north-western part of Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan were covered by a massive inland sea. When the waters receded, they left a broad plain of highly saline soil. One of the remnants of these ancient waters was the Aral Sea, the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. It was a salt-water sea with no outlet fed by two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Fresh water from these two rivers held the Aral’s water and salt levels in perfect balance.

Aral was once the world’s fourth largest lake, but in the 1960s Soviet-era irrigation projects began to divert the water from the two rivers. By 1980, the sea had shrunk to 17% of its original land area, and 9% of its water volume. Large dams were built across both rivers, and an 850-mile central canal with a far-reaching system of “feeder” canals was created. When the irrigation system was completed, millions of acres along both sides of the main canal were flooded. By 1990, the damage was so severe the waters had split into two parts – the Northern Sea bordering Kazakhstan and the larger South Sea in Uzbekistan.

Regional efforts to restore sea levels had little impact until 2003, when the Kazakh government together with the World Bank began work on a joint $64 million Northern Aral Sea restoration project, including the eight mile Kok-Aral dam, completed in 2005. The dam allows water to accumulate in the Northern Sea, helping to restore delta and riverine wetland ecosystems as well as to sustain agriculture and fish production. The second phase of the project was to begin in 2011, but there is an ongoing issue with finding funds to match the amount proposed by the World Bank.

The South Aral Sea, which lies in poorer Uzbekistan, was largely abandoned to its fate. Only excess water from the North Aral Sea is periodically allowed to flow into the largely dried-up South Aral Sea through a sluice in the dike. Discussions have been held on restoring a channel between the somewhat improved North and the desiccated South, but political will is lacking. Uzbekistan is also concentrating on more lucrative oil exploration in the dried up seabed.

It’s an old story: “who controls the water controls the city”. The tragedy of the Aral Sea is symptomatic of a global politics that really doesn’t care. No one seems sympathetic to the plight of Uzbekistan’s population of Qaraqalpaqs (the name comes from two words: qara meaning black, and qalpaq meaning hat), a Turkic people who traditionally herded and fished. Qaraqalpaq folklore includes lyric tales and epic poems. There are stories of boys, such as Tarzshi and Aldarkose, whom everybody tries to outsmart but they always manage to come out on top. The epics are about historical events and heroic figures. Epic heroes often turn out to be women. In Kyrk Qiz (The Forty Maidens), the heroine Gulaim defends her homeland from invading Kalmyks. Maspatsha tells the story of Aiparshir, a woman of great beauty and tremendous courage.

The culture of the Qaraqalpaqs, including traditional rug-weaving (see above), is vanishing along with the remnants of the Aral Sea. They are now the poorest group in Uzbekistan and the future looks bleak. An article in The Economist (14 May 2010) observes:

“The reality is that the region has no future at all. The Aral Sea’s disappearance has led to drier summers and harsher winters. Soils grow ever more saline, and cotton yields only fall.” A local development expert says, “If you had $50m, it would be better to spend it moving the Karakalpaks to a more salubrious place, even at the cost of destroying an ancient and remarkable people’s links to their land… The region will be on life support for ever.”

The irony is that the whole world is also on a life-support system: an ecosystem in which water is essential and whose fragility is constantly assailed by ignorance, greed, and the intransigence of global politics. When will we learn?


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

3 thoughts on “Global water politics and the Aral Sea”

  1. Really interesting Philip. Sadly – not sure we will ever learn! Or not until it is too late… That seems to be the story of mankind’s brief time on this planet..

    1. It’s interesting that the ‘right to water’ has been such a contentious issue, only recently given a boost by the United Nations. It seems so obvious. Thank you for subscribing!

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