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Revival of the Aral Sea: Kazakh and World Efforts to Restore the Island Sea

By Pavel Pribylovsky

aral sea dry sea bed 1The Aral Sea has a grand history in Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region and was once one of the four largest lakes in the world, covering 26,300 square miles with Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. Its name means “Island Sea” as this water body is surrounded by the forbidding deserts and dry steppes.

As many are aware, Soviet irrigation projects begun in the 1960s and other environmental challenges have severely depleted this once massive inland sea and by 2007, it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size.

But what many don’t know is that there has been a significant effort to revive the Aral Sea, or, at least, its part, both internationally and in Kazakhstan. That effort has begun to draw international attention and resources, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who sent a video message concerning the sea to the Oct. 28-29 International Conference on the Implementation of Regional Projects in the Aral Sea Basin in Urgench, Uzbekistan.

The secretary general recalled his visit to the Aral Sea in 2010 and his reaction to the horrific sight of the “desert where water used to flow.” He called for greater “national and regional cooperation to manage trans-boundary waters fairly” and “intensifying the international response.” He also called for more efficient local water use, emphasising that the root of the problem was poor water management that affects the lives of millions in the region.

Masood Ahmad, World Bank task team leader for the Syr Darya Control & Northern Aral Sea (NAS) project, agreed with Ban Ki-moon’s sentiments during an interview with EdgeKz.

“The Aral Sea problem is not just a sea problem. It’s an agricultural problem, irrigation problem and hydropoweraral sea in 1989 and today generation problem,” he said. “Water productivity in the region is low. It’s like using sprinklers for irrigation.”

The problems of the once proud Aral Sea, however, are not just another international eco-issue in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, the issue has always been close to home.

“Each country in the region has its own national program designed to effectively use its water resources and improve social and economic development in the basin of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea tragedy is our [Kazakhstan’s] pain and our president’s [Nursultan Nazarbayev’s] pain. He frequently talks about it in government meetings,” said Professor Sagit Ibatullin, Vice-Chairman of the Compliance Committee of the UN Convention on the Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and former Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (EC IFAS). Ibatullin was appointed by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to serve as Chairman of EC IFAS from October 2008 to August 2013 when Uzbekistan took over the presidency for the current rotation.

But dedicated efforts to revive the sea are beginning to take hold. As Ban Ki-moon mentioned in his video address, currently the UN and various agencies are working in concert “to improve livelihoods, boost development and reduce health and environmental risks in the most affected areas.”

Among those efforts are Syr Darya Control & Northern Aral Sea (NAS) project. The $86 million NAS project, funded jointly by the World Bank through a loan of $65 million and the Government of Kazakhstan which covered the rest, was designed to mitigate the environmental and economic damage to the region, sustain and increase agriculture and fishing in the Syr Darya basin and secure the continued existence of the Northern Aral Sea (also known as the Small Sea) by improving environmental and ecological conditions in the delta area.

The project included the August 2005 completion of the eight-mile Kok-Aral Dam that separates the two parts of the Aral Sea and has resulted in the accumulation of 30 cubic kilometers of water in the Small Sea and has helped to restore the delta and revive the wetland ecosystem. It also involved creating an opening in the dike allowing excess water to flow down into the dried-up Southern Aral. The project also included newly-constructed and renovated waterworks along the Syr Darya that have improved the carrying capacity of the river and helped farmers living on its shores by increasing the water supply volume for 16,000 hectares of irrigated land. Fishing lakes in the delta area were restored and began to serve as hatcheries to restock the Small Sea’s fish population. “By 2006, a number of fisheries producing high-quality fish had grown rapidly,” said Ahmad.

“The NAS project is a great success story,” he commented further. “It helped to improve the health and living conditions of about one million people and reduce poverty in the region. Let’s be clear. We can’t save the Aral Sea. Some things are irreversible. But we have revived a part of it. The biggest challenge now is to learn to use water efficiently.”

cropped aral sea with buildingThe idea that the Aral Sea can’t be “saved” in the traditional sense was also shared with EdgeKz by Professor Ibatullin. “You can no longer talk about saving the Aral Sea, really,” said the former chairman of the EC IFAS, an intergovernmental body put together by the presidents of the five countries affected by the Aral Sea disaster. “It would not be correct. We even suggested renaming the IFAS as the Organisation of Cooperation in the Aral Sea.”

Ibatullin is an authority in the field of water management who has spoken and presented at various meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, at the European Parliament in Brussels and multiple high-level forums in Geneva, Stockholm, Berlin, Seoul and Bangkok.

And he notes that among the most successful efforts to revive the Aral Sea was a project adopted by the Kazakh government and supported so firmly by the World Bank.

“The most effective measure for the conservation of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan was the government-adopted program to create the Small Aral Sea. Implementation of the program has led to a revival of fisheries, the return of the population that fled in the 1990s and improved economic performance in the region. There are [dozens of kinds of] fish in the Small Sea now and fish production in the Northern Aral increased tenfold, from 400 to 4,000 tonnes a year. GDP per capita in the region has increased substantially. Fish farmers can afford a car and a truck. Even two or three trucks,” Ibatullin told EdgeKz.

“Kazakhstan is a downstream country,” he continued. “The upstream countries in the region are interested in using water for their energy needs but we (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) – we need the water for irrigation. It’s a sensitive issue that causes friction between the countries in the region, but we have successfully resolved these issues within the framework of the IFAS, the only political body that brings all five countries together.”

That spirit of cooperation is reflected in the motto of the Fund, Serving The People of Central Asia, and its mission to build a viable framework for strengthening dialogue and partnership between member countries as well as with foreign governmental, non-governmental and international organisations to develop, approve and implement regional project activities that are supported by and serve the interests of all member states.

In total, three revival programs were designed for implementation in the Aral Sea Basin (ASBP 1, ASBP 2 and ASBP 3). The most detailed and comprehensive of these, ASBP 3, covers the 2011-2015 period and was developed during Kazakhstan’s presidency of the executive committee of IFAS.

The program differs from the first two in that it was created by the leading scholars of Central Asia with the participationresized aral sea map of internationally-recognized experts from Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and France brought in at the request of the executive committee of the German government, the World Bank and the European Union.

“All those experts worked together in the IFAS office in 2009-2011. The Eurasian Development Bank, GIZ (Germany), USAID and the OSCE mission in Kazakhstan actively participated in the program and offered their technical assistance. The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Kubis and the ECE Secretariat in Geneva all played a huge role in providing technical and financial support for the IFAS. Based in Ashgabat, the UN Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia also made a significant contribution to our work,” said Ibatullin. For the first time in the history of the IFAS program, ASBP 3 approved a special donor conference held in Almaty in December 2010. The conference attracted more than 70 international financial institutions interested in financing the program.

According to Ibatullin, the total cost of ASBP 3, if fully implemented, is estimated at $10-$12 billion. A number of projects were launched during Kazakhstan’s presidency of the EC IFAS: a World Bank-funded $27 million project entitled “Strengthening Hydrometeorological Countries in Central Asia” designed to run through 2016, “Impact of climate change on water resources in Central Asia” funded by the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), the $1.2 million “Development of economic-mathematical models of water resources in Central Asia” program funded by USAID, “Evaluation of the safety of hydraulic structures in Central Asia” funded by the EDB, “Creating a meta-database of trans-boundary rivers in Central Asia” supported by the French Development Agency and “Capacity-building and support for the development of the EC IFAS” with the help of GIZ, Germany.

“In my opinion, if all the funds allocated to ASBP 3 in accordance with the commitments of the donor community are raised, the program will be successfully implemented and benefit the people of Central Asia, as it is designed to boost social and economic development and rehabilitate the area affected by the Aral tragedy,” said Ibatullin.

The Past is Not the Only Challenge

“Unfortunately, the threats and challenges of today often interfere with existing projects developed within the framework of IFAS,” added Ibatullin. “We need to develop new measures designed to mitigate the consequences of climate change in Central Asia, [including] the disappearance of glaciers, desertification of natural ecosystems, depletion of biological resources and the degradation of water and land resources. Rapid population growth over the last 40 years resulted in a severe decline in fresh water resources, from 8,000 cubic meters to just 1,200 per capita in Southern Kazakhstan, compared to a drop from 8,000 to 6,500 in Europe. And this tendency continues. Water scarcity is a real issue. We have developed six bad case scenarios at the IFAS, and they go from bad to worse to worst. We need to learn to conserve water,” said Ibatullin, echoing Ban Ki-moon and Ahmad. “We don’t have a culture of water conservation like they have in Israel.”

“The cross-border cooperation has created quite an extensive legal framework, including intergovernmental treaties and agreements covering the entire range of tasks in support of effective cooperation in the use of water resources,” he continued. “However, in my opinion, some adjustments have to be made. We prepared a number of proposals on updating the structure of the IFAS and its units and improving the sharing of accumulated experience and the lessons learned. A number of agreements on sharing the water resources of the Syr Darya and dam safety await full consensus of the parties involved.”

A seminar on developing an efficient fishery framework in the Kazakh portion of the Aral Sea region was held Nov. 18 in Kyzylorda. The seminar was organized by the OSCE Center in Astana in close partnership with the IFAS executive directorate in Kazakhstan and local municipalities in the Kyzylorda region, as well as the Aral-Syr Dariya Water Basin Council.

resized aral sea fishIn attendance were government officials, non-governmental water and environmental protection authorities and academics. The event was designed as a valuable platform to discuss an emerging state fishery program for the Kyzylorda region, explore opportunities for reducing the impact of economic activities on the Aral Sea ecosystem and introduce know-how, technologies, best practices and international standards in the fishery industry.

The OSCE Center in Astana facilitated participation of national experts and representatives of the Aral-Syr Dariya Water Basin Council. The event was organized as part of the OSCE project entitled “Introducing sustainable fishery as part of a green economy approach in the Aral Sea region.” This program was designed to support sustainable development and fragile ecosystems in the northern part of the Aral Sea.

“It’s a unique place,” added the World Bank’s Ahmad. “A revived sea. There was never one. It’s the Eighth Wonder of the World and should be recognized as such. It would bring tourism to the area. They won’t run out of the water. Humans won’t run out of the water. We adapt and adjust.”

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