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Solutions to the sad case of the Aral Sea

By Dave Armstrong - 16 Oct 2014 10:4:0 GMT
Solutions to the sad case of the Aral Sea

Around the plains of the Amu Darya, some bee eaters, Merops orientalis, still survive, but their health and that of the human population is under severe strain; Green bee-eaters image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Until 1960, we could rate the Aral Sea as the 4th largest inland sea, alongside the Caspian Sea, and Lakes Victoria and Superior. They were major landlocked seas with unique and endemic fish species and scientific interest At 426km by 284km in size, the Aral was 68m in depth in places and the influence on its environment was highly significant for local weather, the people and wildlife. In particular, the winters were warmer because of its benign effect on the local air mass, while in summer, evaporation provided a vital cooling effect Then the rivers (mainly the Syr Darya and Amu Darya) that fed the volume of water (a massive 1,083km3) were used in the Soviet era for irrigation of large agricultural industries such as cotton farms. Then the Sea began disappearing. Nowadays, the UN has been alerted by Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations to the economic, health and environmental effects of such disastrous management.

The outflow from rivers into the area now forms a mere 12.7km3, around 4.5X less than in the 60s. The 5.5 million hectare Aralkum Desert has taken over the region with its salty toxic sand and threatens health and environment over a very wide area as winds blow the dust for thousands of kilometres. It has also been estimated that 75 million tonnes of this dust annually enters the atmosphere. This is readily observed as plumes rise from the Aralkum, measured at 400km long by 40km wide

Climate is further affected by rising summer temperatures, with twice the number of days over 40oC. Global warming is expected to raise these temperatures much higher. Pollution of water and this dust have contributed to terrible health problems around the previous coastlines. Milk dioxin levels in Karakalpakstan (Qoraqalpogʻiston Respublikasi) are x5 that of European women. Kidney and blood disease is rife, with child mortality levels still high, despite international help with mother/child health problems and water purification.

Wildlife is now very limited, with all of the fish species gone. Half of the previous species of plant and animal have disappeared. We covered some of the animal and plant losses in 2013 with Central Asian Ecology. The tugai or riparian “gallery forests” that followed the rivers to the Aral Sea near Samarkand held many species such as Tamarix ramosissima, poplars and sea buckthorn communities, containing unique pheasants, white-headed owl, boar, bald badger and porcupine. Hopefully, the animals and plants are tough, as indeed the people have to be.

A conference in Uzbekistan at the end of the month should help organise more international action for all of the neighbouring countries in Central Asia, and particularly the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. It is entitled, “Development of cooperation in the Aral Sea Basin to mitigate consequences of the environmental catastrophe.” In Urganch, the participants will be discussing the results of previous work and pushing the need for greater action on health, economic improvement and environmental fronts.