Staunton, April 16 – The idea of diverting water from Ob to Central Asia to save the Aral Sea or meet the needs of the growing population of Central Asia has been raised and shot down several times in the last century, most recently in 2010 when Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov came out in support of the idea only to be fired shortly thereafter.
But now as a result of global warming which is projected simultaneously to desiccate large portions of the countries of Central Asia and dramatically increase the flow of Siberian rivers, the idea of Siberian river diversion is experiencing a new boomlet, although the costs and political problems associated with it means it is still unlikely to happen anytime soon.
In the Kazakhstan-based Central Asian Monitor, journalist Zhenikh Baykhozha says that even today advocates and opponents of Siberian river diversion begin as they did in Soviet times by talking about the annual diversion of 27.2 cubic kilometers of water from the Ob along a 2259 kilometer canal to Central Asia (camonitor.kz/30997-aral-i-voda-iz-sibiri-chego-v-etom-proekte-bolshe-ekonomiki-ili-politiki.html).
At present, she says, the annual flow of the Ob is approximately 360 cubic kilometers, so that the planned diversion would amount to only 7.5 percent. But now, given global warming, the Ob’s flow is slated to increase dramatically and thus reduce the share that would have to be diverted and the impact that diversion would have on Siberia and the Arctic Ocean.
But the cost of such a project both direct and indirect would still be enormous, and the political difficulties of reaching agreement among all the countries that would be involved are so large that it is difficult to imagine that as useful as such a project might be for Central Asia, it could ever be built.
The most commonly used current estimate of the cost to dig the canal and build the atomic power plants to power the pumping stations has been offered by Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, the former Russian ecology minister and now director of the Moscow Institute of Water Problems. He says it would cost about 200 billion US dollars.
Because he is an opponent of the project, Baykhozha says, his estimate may be an exaggeration. But most people including advocates admit that it would be enormously costly. Moreover, they say that if the Central Asians had to amortize any debt by paying higher prices for water, they might not be able to afford it, at least on their own.
But given the death of the Aral Sea, the melting of the glaciers on which Central Asians have long relied for water, and the declining flows of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya river systems, they may not have any choice but to pay these prices or be forced to flee their homeland to get enough water to live.
The project itself has one important political dimension now that it did not have in Soviet times, she continues. Fifty years ago, Moscow was able to play off the water surplus republics – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – against the water shortage republics – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – to maintain its power in the region.
Now, all five are independent countries; and all have both less available water and greater demands for it than they did. Consequently, it is at least possible that Moscow might see water as a weapon to restore its power of these countries and thus decide to support – or at least promise to do so – Siberian river diversion.
If that were to happen, it would dramatically change the politics of the region by giving Moscow the power to turn on or off the tap, a power that none of the countries there could afford to ignore.