It does not require much guesswork to see why the president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev flew off to Johannesburg so hastily to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development. In view of the dying Aral Sea, the polluted Caspian and other looming disasters he could not afford to miss the opportunity to draw the attention of the world organizations to these dangers.
The alarming news that the Aral Sea was desiccating rapidly caused a general depression in early nineties. The five Central Asian nations set up an international "Save the Aral" foundation. The original intention was to work out a project to prevent the sea, commonly used for irrigation and fish industry, from drying out. But that broad and blurry idea was never materialized. It was also agreed that the main contributors - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - would allocate 0.3% of their national budget to the foundation. None of these states, however, met this commitment in full. According to some sources in the years 1993-2001 contributions were $12,980,000 less than was initially expected.
But it does not mean that the efforts of the government to restore the ecological balance in the area has not been supported financially. The aid came primarily from the outside. For this year only, the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development has earmarked $64,5 million for the project to save the part of the sea known as the Minor Aral. The project also includes measures aimed to restore the volume of the Syrdarya river basin.
While experts try hard to find out the exact cause of the Aral Sea irretrievably turning into a desert with every passing day, Central Asian states put the blame on each other. Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers have been feeding the Aral Sea for thousands of years. The water from the rivers were abundantly used to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan. Rice plantations in Kyzylorda also depend on the Aral Sea for water. Faulty management in both countries led to the dramatic reduction of river water flowing into the sea, which is retreating alarmingly fast leaving behind vast wasteland and causing hitherto unknown diseases. Infant mortality in Kyzylorda region, located in the area, is the highest in the country. Until recently, the region had a thriving fish industry. Kazakakhstan earned huge amounts of money from the export of fish and caviar, but fish-processing plants for the most part stand idle today.
Every nation in Central Asia is understandably striving to gain a stronger influence over water resources of the region. In this situation, it is almost inconceivable for them to find a solution which would please everyone. At a conference in Tashkent in spring 2000, some participants proposed to divert Siberian rivers to feed the Aral Sea. The idea was met with almost unanimous protest from environmental activists and experts who warned that such plans would generate a new disaster.
Another source of worry in Kazakhstan, some analysts maintain, is likely to be Afghanistan. Cynical as it may sound, the end of the war there forebodes nothing good for residents of the poverty-stricken Aral area. They fear that Afghan farmers, as soon as they lay down their arms arms, may start using Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers extensively for irrigation purposes aggravating the already acute water shortage problem.
Given this complicated tangle of political controversies and selfish economic interests around the Aral Sea, it seems, it would be wise for all parties involved to work out a feasible common strategy. Foreign money, which keeps flowing in, is not likely to work wonders unless public control is established over their use.
The prevailing mood is probably best described by Kayrat Ibrahimov of the public movement "Aral Sea": "Foreigners, like our ministers, come and go. But we are here to stay, in the land of our ancestors. If we really want to save the Aral, we must take its fate into our own hands". Bureaucracy, red tape and corruption, however, seem to be stronger than the will of common people.
Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan