Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Efforts to ‘Save’ the Aral Sea Could Leave It Truly Dead, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 26 – Those working to “save” the Aral Sea in Central Asia now face a Hobson’s choice, according to a senior Russian biologist. They can increase the surface area of the sea by redirecting fresh water into it but only at the cost of killing off the fish in it which are used to more saline waters.
            Nikolay Aladin of the Russian Academy of Sciences told the Kazakhstan newspaper “Karavan” that it is necessary for those concerned about the Aral Sea to make a choice between restoring some of its surface area through the diversion into it of more fresh water or ensuring that its fish stock, accustomed to saline waters, will remain or grow (caravan.kz/article/59665).

            Aladin, who has been studying the Aral Sea since the end of the 1970s and who first marked its decline in size in 1981, has written frequently about the dying sea, and his other writings underscore just how complicated this decision is because far more is involved than a first glance might suggest.

            On the one hand, expanding the surface area of the sea would have the positive effect of reducing the amount of wind-blown dust from around the Aral, a reduction that could be expected to improve the health of people living nearby. As he and others have reported, the public health situation in Karakalpakia is truly depressing.

            But on the other hand, the fish the sea provides are important both as part of the diet of the surrounding population and as a source of cash earnings for a region whose people have experienced an economic decline over the same period that the shores of the Aral have been receding.

            Because of the sea’s location on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and because the impact of its desiccation affects the health and well-being of the larger Central Asian region, this choice will become intertwined with the domestic and foreign policies of all these states.

            The “Karavan” article provides a clear indication of where local officials stand: Krymbek Kusherbayev, the head of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda oblast (a region larger than Belgium), says that there needs to be a coordinated plan among “those who fish, those who process the fish, and those who give out quotas and licenses.”

            The akim thus supports, in the words of the newspaper, “a unification of the fish industry” in order to “simplify bureaucratic procedures,” an argument that suggests he at least favors protecting the fish stocks of the Aral Sea even if the area that declining body of water covers continues to contract.

            Others in Kazakhstan and elsewhere are likely to disagree, and so the stark choice that Aladin has described seems certain to trigger a new round of intense debate among all those involved in this region over what should be done next to “save” the Aral Sea in a way that will not “kill” it in another.

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