Thursday, November 14, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Aral Sea Can’t Be Saved but It Could Become a Forest, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 14 – The Aral Sea has dried up to the point that it can no longer be saved, but if there is enough funding, its former seabed could become a forest, a development that would limit the amount of rare earth minerals being carried off by the winds and causing cancer and other diseases in the population of the surrounding areas.

            Ten years ago, there were only six million hectares of seabed exposed because of the drying out of the sea; now, there are ten million; and it is clear that the sea cannot be revived. Instead, Uzbek experts argue the region must plant tree, something that may not happen because of a shortage of funds (

            Indeed, in Uzbekistan today, the government appears to be devoting less effort to planting trees in the former seabed to hold the soil against the winds and to help filter what water there is naturally than it did a decade ago when the sea was larger and there was more hope that its desiccation could be reversed.

            Prior to 2005, there were more than 300 people working at the Uzbek research institute charged with this task. That body was disbanded, and its successor had its staff cut first to 64 and now “all of 39.”  As a result, reported yesterday, the former seabed is unlikely to be seeded before the end of this century.

            This situation reflects a lack of financing, and that in turn reflects both government cutbacks and a reluctance of the international community to acknowledge that the Aral, which has been killed by a combination of overpopulation, cotton monoculture, and both leaching and evaporation, is too far gone to be recovered.

            As a result, as the sea continues to contract, ever larger areas of its former bed are swept by the winds, and the minerals are blown into the atmosphere where they are then breathed in by people living nearby.  Such people increasingly become ill, and as the sea continues to die, their numbers and deaths will mount as well.

            Planting trees could limit that and thus reverse a public health disaster, but despite an understanding of that in the local environmental community, there is little money for such activities at the present time.  Indeed, there is less money now when the need is greater than there was earlier.

            A present, there are 95 tree farms in Uzbekistan and Karakalpakia, the hardest hid region which adjoins where the Aral used to be, and if all their production was directed at the old sea bed, they could provide trees that would cover 120 hectares of forest each year. With sufficient funding, they could transform the Aral from a dying sea into a living forest in 50 years.

            That may not have the glamour of “saving the Aral,” but it would save many lives.  As Uzbekistan expert Sergey Shaburyan observes, “the Aral is beyond saving. It will continue to dry out, but it is possible to reduce [the consequences of that] to nothing if there would be enough financing.”

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