Staunton, June 1 – Kabul is building a canal that will take as much as one quarter of the water for local use that had been flowing into other countries. That has already triggered fighting between Iranian and Afghan forces and may soon lead to clashes between Afghanistan and water-short countries to the north, the Lenta news agency reports.
In Uzbekistan, which will be the hardest hit at least in the short term, people are already calling Afghanistan’s water canal “the killer of the Amu Darya,” a river without which it is unclear how Uzbekistan will survive and thus likely to become a casus belli (lenta.ru/articles/2023/06/27/aral/).
This is the perhaps the most dramatic but far from the only consequence of the decline in the flow of river waters in Central Asia that has been killing the Aral Sea and putting the region “on the brink of an ecological catastrophe” with demographic, social and political consequences across it.
Of the 76 million people who live in the five countries of Central Asia, 22 million – “almost a third of the population,” Lenta notes – do not have access to potable drinking water. Rising temperatures as a result of global warming and rapidly growing populations there mean that these figures are set to rise dramatically in the coming years.
By the end of this decade, the two largest rivers in the region, the Amu Darya and the Syra Darya, will have ten to 15 percent of their length dried out, something that will mean that the Aral Sea, already on the way to death, will see its shoreline retreat 20 to 30 meters “every year.”
The combination of these factors means that the salinity of the sea has increased to the point where fishing is no longer possible, although some oil and gas companies are exploiting the situation to extract more petrochemicals from the area, eliminating one of the allies who might have fought the death of the Aral in the past.
Unfortunately, as this tragedy unfolds, the region’s governments have been anything but willing to discuss it openly. Maps issued by officials there still show the area of the Aral Sea to be what it was 40 or 50 years ago, and debates about what can and should be done are tightly controlled lest they trigger social protest or cross-border violence.