Central Asia's Dead Sea

By Schaar, Elisa | Harvard International Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Central Asia's Dead Sea


Schaar, Elisa, Harvard International Review


The Aral Sea's Slow Demise

In a vast region of Central Asia, abandoned fishing boats lie rusting in the desert.

These sand dunes used to constitute the seabed of the world's fourth largest lake, but since the water level of the Aral Sea dropped due to environmental degradation, moldering wrecks and salt-encrusted seashells are the only remnants of the area's one-time maritime splendor. Yet the shrinking of the Aral Sea signifies not only the collapse of the local fishing industry and the retirement of a few old sailors: it also drastically increases the potential for instability among Central Asia's former Soviet Republics.

The Soviet practice of indiscriminately exploiting natural resources to feed its industrial machine had devastating consequences for the Aral Sea region. In 1959, under General-Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's self-sufficiency plan, the Russians diverted the courses of the Amu Syr and Amu Darya rivers, the Aral Sea's two main feeders, to irrigate newly planted cotton fields in Uzbekistan. With the diversion of two of its feeding rivers, evaporation took its toll on the Aral Sea. To exacerbate matters, the pesticides used to accelerate cotton growth heavily polluted the water system. Moscow's attempt to transform one of its republics into a major agricultural center was a shortsighted project and was abandoned within a decade. But the environmental effects were not so transient: the Aral Sea has lost three-fifths of its water in the past 40 years, and its shoreline has at some areas receded more than 60 miles. What remains of the sea is salty and polluted.

The Aral Sea region is a case study in how environmental problems can aggravate geopolitical strife. The Aral Sea is enclosed by Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. Both countries suffer from water shortages, and the water supply for agriculture in the neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is also scarce. Disputes over water are likely to aggravate the political tensions in Central Asia.

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan the shrinking of the Aral Sea has caused a socioeconomic crisis. Harbors have turned into ghost cities and fish-tinning factories have shut down, leaving 60,000 people unemployed. The newly exposed seabed is home to toxins that often poison the remaining work force. These environmental problems will only get worse: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are in the midst of halting transitions from centrally planned, command economies to capitalist free markets and democracy, yet stopping the regional desertification is a task equivalent in scope to the costly cleanup of the nuclear accident on Three Mile Island in the United States. Such a job is far beyond these countries' limited means.

Relations between the two countries, already strained, have only deteriorated because of the environmental devastation. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, there has been a power vacuum in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both consider themselves heir to the regional hegemony. Their rivalry prevents them from making concessions about water usage, and talks about reducing water consumption in the 1990s were mostly inconclusive. Additionally, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan belong to different military blocs. While Kazakhstan is allied with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia, Uzbekistan has joined the GUUAM (so designated after its member countries: Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), an alliance that seeks cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization rather than with Moscow. Different policies and trade barriers have created animosities that impede cooperation on environmental issues. As water shortages become more prevalent, war over water resources becomes increasingly likel y.

One scenario for war has Uzbekistan and the Kazakhstan-kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan bloc fighting over a reliable water source. While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have vast energy resources and gross domestic products that far exceed their neighbors', both depend on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan's water supply, especially since the salinization of the Aral Sea has made its water unsuitable for irrigation. …

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