Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and its Lessons for Sustainability: Volume 20


Table of contents

(46 chapters)

If one were revisiting the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, Uzbekistan and the Silk Road region would offer many candidates. The Registan in Samarkand, the central square in Bukhara, the Ichan Kala in Khiva, all offer architectural marvel after marvel. Our task, sadly, is to consider wonders of another kind. Any list of the worst disasters of the world would also rank Uzbekistan at the top, making clear reference to the massive transformation of western Uzbekistan (and Kazakhstan) from home to the fourth largest inland sea to host of a barren desert. All of the waterborne life force of the Aral Sea has been swept from the region and converted into dry sands and dusty winds. The void that remains is a scar on nature of unprecedented magnitude. In the Aral's collapse, the disaster has sucked into its vacuum the peoples of the region, their lives and livelihood, their health and well being, and certainly their hopes and aspirations. And it has created regional and global issues of great urgency and sensitivity.

Central Asian nations all gained their independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Unfortunately, with their independence, they also inherited many environmental problems. By far, the most pervasive issue is the shrinking of the Aral Sea. The enormity of the environmental crisis of the Aral Sea has been attested by environmentalists both in Central Asia and in other parts of the world. In this chapter, the broad scope of the disaster is set forth along with its principle causes. An overview of the geography and water supply in the region is given. And the daunting challenge of cross boundary impact and thus need for multinational cooperation is discussed. The challenge in the region today is twofold. First, it must address the Aral Sea disaster. And second, it must create the conditions to sustainably manage transboundary water resources to head off new catastrophe.

In this chapter, we examine the consequences of the substantial diversion of water to irrigation in the Aral Sea region, the principle cause of the Aral Sea disaster. The purpose of this study is to understand the relationship of the two rivers feeding Uzbekistan to the water inflow into the Aral Sea and to economic productivity in agriculture. We find that because water consumption exceeds water formation, the prognosis for future growth in agricultural output is at risk. Uzbekistan and its neighbors need to address the upstream and downstream rights to water access for the Syr and Amu rivers. The solutions to our immediate problems can be found inside Uzbekistan. Improving water efficiency and water conservation is a necessary, economical option compared to other proposals.

Central Asia today is the focus of intense international attention because of its geopolitical and economic importance, its natural and human resources, its transit potential for transcontinental trade and transport, and its unsettled political situation. The last years of the Soviet period introduced increasing natural resource degradation. The deficit of water resources and contamination of the waters are two of the most severe problems within the region. Overuse of agrochemicals continues to result in the intensive pollution of agricultural lands and water resources. Many of the environmental challenges in Central Asia are closely linked to agricultural and industrial production. The most visible result of pollution is the increasing salinity of water, especially in downstream areas. The lack of domestic resources to address environmental issues requires regional solutions built upon environmental cooperation and goodwill reinforced with international assistance.

The history of Vozrezdheniye Island in the Aral Sea is recounted, both to establish the related hazards and to acknowledge the underlying social process it shares with the Aral Sea Disaster, itself. A Closed City, part of the secretive world of Soviet arms manufacture and testing, carried out a hidden agenda of experimentation in the heart of the vast blue sea. Even as the Aral Sea was polluted and starved of water from without, parallel authoritarian regimes were poisoning its heart at the center. In this way, the military industrial complex became an actor with parallel duplicity to the public planned economic sector in charting the death of the Aral Sea. Ironically, the very attraction of Rebirth Island as an isolated weapons testing ground was undermined by the actions of the Soviet government to desiccate the Aral Sea, thus uniting Vozrezdheniye to the main shore and destroying its seclusion. In both instances, the case study is a further indicator that the people of Karakalpakstan were considered marginal and expendable, underscoring environmental injustices that continue long after the demise of the Aral Sea.

This chapter describes the climatic setting of the Aral Sea region, investigates how the climate might change during the 21st century, and discusses potential impacts on water resources. Temperature and precipitation fields are analyzed to describe the mean climate for the Aral Sea region. Composite analysis has been employed on the precipitation field from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP v2.2) to assess the spatial pattern of changes in precipitation during the last several decades. Furthermore, temperature and precipitation projections available from the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are synthesized to examine the nature of climate change during this century.

Cold season precipitation has increased during recent decades, particularly over the mountainous terrain east of the Aral Sea. Climate models also project increases (5−20%) in winter precipitation during the 21st century; however, several models suggest decreases (0 to −15%) in precipitation during summer. Despite the increases in cold season precipitation, the large increases in temperature (4°C) during the 21st century are likely to cause increased evaporation which could exacerbate the regional water budget deficit. This may constrain the water supply in the region, particularly during summer and autumn when water demand is highest. To fully understand the impacts of future climate change on regional water resources, hydrologic models that include anthropogenic management of water will be required.

In this chapter, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Uzkekistan to the United Nations, His Excellency Murad Askarov, sets forth his nation's concerns over transboundary rivers in Central Asia and the protection of Uzbekistan's rights as the most downstream nation in the region. A key focus of the chapter is the continuance of Soviet-era dam projects in the headwaters of the region's two principal rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. In particular, the chapter focuses upon the potential adverse impacts associated with the completion of the Rogun hydropower project by Tajikstan in the headwaters of the Amu Darya. International opposition to the project is summarized. And the unequivocal opposition of Uzbekistan is made clear.

Having established multiple disasters now radiating from the core loss of the Aral Sea, we turn to the volume's theme of Disaster by Design in Section Two. Neither the trunk nor the branches was a natural process; all took root in the hands of humans intent on altering nature to serve humans.

This chapter addresses the Aral Sea disaster, not as an acute event demanding emergency response, but with a long-term view aimed at determining the causes of the disaster and providing analysis and troubleshooting to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

Emergency response requires quick action and no cost is spared. Such actions look very bold and are very often used to enhance the public image of politicians, businessmen, and leaders of various organizations who have rendered assistance.

The second direction, described here, is a more complicated and thankless task. The investigation faces obstruction from those who caused the disaster or who can use the crisis situation to their advantage. It is hard to get financing for long-term solutions. This chapter describes the key causes of the death of the Aral Sea. I then describe our engagement in the hard work of looking for ways to correct errors and provide innovative solutions that would satisfy the majority of stakeholders.

The UN Declaration for Human Rights on the availability of clean water gives a new context for the case made in this chapter. Here I argue that all people along the rivers of Central Asia (and elsewhere) share the same rights to have enough high-quality water and to fully enjoy a healthy environment, regardless whether they live upstream or downstream.

The hydrologic losses due to net evaporation in the Aral Sea have interesting analogs in the interior-drainage basins of the American West. Each of the three places discussed here – the Salton Sea, Owens Lake, and Mono Lake – has its own unique historical and geographic circumstances, but the story of each place has certain parallels to the Aral Sea disaster. Each place experienced dramatic water losses during much of the 20th century, but the emergence of environmental science and law in recent decades has caused significant policy changes. The Salton Sea is still declining, and modest efforts by state and federal agencies to halt the decline are inadequate. A proposal to build dikes to save part of the water body and convert the rest to salt evaporation ponds cited the Aral Sea as a model for the Salton Sea's future. The dry Owens Lake bed yields windblown dust that exceeds the Clean Air standard for fine particulate matter (PM 10), so Los Angeles is now required to release additional water back into the basin to create more shallow wetlands. In Mono Lake, a negotiated settlement has reversed the water loss while protecting vital interests of all parties, and a substantial ecological restoration plan is being implemented. The history of the American analogs to the Aral Sea, especially the success story of Mono Lake, may indicate potential pathways to progress in reducing problems caused by large-scale water diversion.

In this chapter, the title theme of “Disaster by Design” is explored and justified. Even from early times, the Aral Region was subject to alterations of natural conditions due to human intervention, often deliberate and designed. After the final conquest by Russia, the region became a fixed colony as part of the Soviet Union, ripe for exploitation characteristic of the Soviet approach to nature broadly and to stigmatized areas specifically. The Aral region was selected for irrigated cotton and other cultivation even though the consequences for desiccation of the sea, desertification, and salinization were understood. The decision was so calculated that even a cost–benefit analysis was offered to show that the Aral fishery was worth but a fraction of the cotton potential. The destruction of the region was made possible by a Soviet system of central planning and peripheral control. The brief glimmer of hope for the region evidenced during glasnost was the only moment where the Aral's fate was not sealed. The outcome is a model of ecological disaster by design, an environmental injustice, and an indication of the abusive nature of authoritarian power.

Because we tend to make a close association between farming and the land, agriculture is not widely recognized for its destructive impacts to the environment and health. The shape of agricultural production is very place specific in many ways. The Soviets collectivized farms, farmers and machinery, deliberately destroying the preexisting peasant culture. The rural small farmer worldwide has been dramatically impacted by neocolonialism and globalization, with a massive out migration to cities resulting.

There is a connection between cotton production and the Aral Sea disaster in Uzbekistan. Large-scale cotton production utilizes the practices of conventional agriculture and has severe environmental consequences in arid regions. Some of these problems, such as salinization, currently exist in Uzbekistan as a result of cotton production and these conventional farming practices. This chapter is a review of cotton production, the environmental consequences of conventional agriculture, and its relationship to the Aral Sea Disaster. Storm water management with biofiltration, sustainable farming practices, efficient irrigation, ecological horticultural practices, and a water conservation program are remedies that can help to reduce the environmental degradation caused by cotton production and restore some of the water resources in Uzbekistan.

Agriculture accounts for most of the land use in Uzbekistan, and is consequently the main determinant of environmental quality. As a result, due to the excessive use of production inputs and irrigation, land is widely degraded in Uzbekistan. This chapter explores characteristics and changes in land use, agricultural production, soil ecosystems, and water availability, and their effects on both soil degradation and limits on sustainable development in different agro-ecological zones of Uzbekistan. Secondary data from various sources was collected and processed, and descriptive statistical methods were used to analyze trends, causes, and effects of land degradation. Zones with lower land quality have higher water-use indicators. There is a positive correlation between the land grade and fertilizer application coefficients. Agriculture from the east zone showed sustainable water consumption, the highest average land-quality grade, and has the highest fertilizer-use coefficient. The downstream west zone has the highest water-use and the lowest fertilizer-use indicators. The analysis revealed a great potential for water saving in the west and southeast agricultural zones of Uzbekistan.

When agricultural productivity was studied in areas of the Zarafshan valley incorporating 26 rayons or counties, a clear relationship was found between increased use of water and decreased efficiency. Moreover, inefficiencies were most evident in the Bukhara region, where water quality is the poorest. There, an overall slide in productivity was evident. A shift to sustainable water use and farming practices was called for. Convergent findings were found in a second, computer modeling study. On an index of water overuse, a significant relationship between water overuse and a decline in agricultural production was again demonstrated. The potential impacts of climate change on agricutural productivity were also modeled, revealing a tentative relationship between a decline of productivity and a 1% increase in temperature.

Intensive agricultural production in the countries of the Aral Sea Basin has resulted in undesirable ecological and social consequences, including the drying of the Aral Sea. Water has become scarce due to a score of internal and external factors including the growing demand for water resources by the upstream countries, expansion of the irrigated areas to ease food insecurity, and the poor condition of irrigation and drainage networks. To cope with environmental consequences and regional water challenges, it is vital to look for pathways of improved integrated water resource management, higher water use efficiencies, and reducing overall water use.

A combination of value chain and water footprint analyses of the dominant crop, cotton, was applied to assess water use in different sectors of the Uzbekistan economy and to seek water saving and improved water management and efficiency options.

The findings show that reduction in water use could be achieved by diversifying the economy and moving from water intensive agricultural production to less water consuming industrial sectors by introducing water saving irrigation technologies and by raising awareness of the population about the real value of water.

The combined findings of the economic based value chain analysis and ecologically oriented water footprint analysis gave an added value for better informed decision-making to reach land, water, and ecosystem sustainability and to contribute to the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty and hunger and achieving food and water security.

From the lead editor's nearly forty years of work on environmental disaster, there is a basic rule of thumb that has never disappointed (Edelstein, 2000, 2004). No matter how severe the direct impacts of a disaster are, at least half the stress comes from the secondary psychosocial impacts involved in dealing with the aftermath. In the case of the Aral Sea, most of the stress is back loaded. The population of Karkalpakstan, particularly those living by and working on the sea, was literally left high and dry, suffering substantial psychosocial and health impacts.1

This chapter briefly discusses an often overlooked impact of the loss of the Aral Sea, the social costs to the population in the surrounding areas. While much focus has been on the shrinkage of the Aral in the past half century, the story is much older and includes a diversity of people, ecosystems, and productive ways of living in a harsh climate. This chapter is an overview of how ecological parameters have influenced life for the local population in Karakalpakstan. The research is based on a short site visit and tests ideas for a longer project that will look at who is migrating for employment, based on what criteria, and the dynamics of that choice. Seminal writings about human activity around the Aral when it was full, along with recent reports on livelihoods, health, and migration patterns are reviewed. The chapter supports the idea that migration can be an adaptation to climate. Migration is overall a negative social sustainability indicator for Karakalpakstan.

In this chapter, I reflect on growing up in Karakalpakstan during the 1980s and 1990s. I review my childhood memories, and also my learning about the Aral Sea disaster since that time. Mostly, even growing up in Nukus, we were not very aware of the total extent of the disaster or the shrinking sea. It was still far away for us. Today we read about the shrinking Aral Sea and we wonder, how could it be true? Knowing what we know now, I hope my story can provide insight into understanding the region and why it is important to plan for environmental safety.

This chapter provides a brief overview of our understanding of major public health challenges and environmental concerns in Karakalpakstan today, and highlights questions that still remain unanswered. As seen in the case of Muynak, the fishing town on the southern edge of the former Aral Sea, ecological disasters do not happen alone – they spur socioeconomic disasters that only heighten the health disasters. The loss of the sea, the loss of local livelihoods, and mass out-migration of the population, along with economic depression following the collapse of the Soviet Union, have adversely affected the community living in Muynak. They face major public health challenges, such as tuberculosis, multidrug resistant tuberculosis, and anemia as a result of their impoverishment. The desiccation of the Aral Sea is but one of the many disasters linked to intensive cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan. Pesticide contamination and the salinization of drinking water in Karakalpakstan are yet other environmental disasters that further threaten the health of the population and of future generations. Currently, there is an urgent need for greater international involvement and collaboration with Uzbeks to reverse the poor public health trends and to study the extent of environmental contamination in communities across Karakalpakstan, in order to reduce the health threats presented by these.

The discussion in this chapter is intended to provide a snapshot of the health picture for western Uzbekistan. The collection of reliable and valid health data is limited and data available is often incomplete. Here we are forced to rely on our observations as physicians. Life expectancy is low in Karakalpakstan, being about 10 years shorter than the national average for both men and women. Changes in the water quality, soil quality, air quality, and food quality, have had negative impact on health and well-being. Life has become more difficult for everyone, especially for much of the population in rural areas, with very limited access to services. Maternal mortality rates are extremely high in these regions. Morbidity rates in the population, in particular blood and blood-related diseases and respiratory disease, are particularly high. Slight improvements are evident in the past few years for these different health indicators, however, further substantial improvements are essential for the health and well-being of the population.

An indicator of the ecological damage done by the Aral Sea disaster is the fate of species that made use of this lost ecosystem. In this paper, two water birds, the spoonbill (Platalea leucorogia L) and the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) are discussed. Primary research by the author shows that both species adapted to changed conditions by extending into regions not previously within range and using human-formed rather than natural environments. The spoonbill has made extensive use of new ponds and lakes formed by rising water tables in the Bukhara region. The heron has taken advantage of urban and human occupied settings for expanded settlement. Both are thriving in new environments but their old range in the Aral region is no longer suitable for their survival.

Khiva is a UNESCO World Heritage site with ancient mudbrick buildings and a complete city wall. These are threatened from below by water and salt, and we seek to understand how the deterioration is happening and can be stopped. We have done investigations in the subsoil over several years to determine that destruction is caused by waterlogging, shifts in the ground, termites, and other damage. The damage has been caused by agricultural practices, especially leaky irrigation systems. Some of Khiva's buildings are becoming structurally unsound from water damage. Our studies at several sites confirm that water diversion will be necessary to prevent further infiltration of salt and water. Khiva's legacy is contained in the ancient buildings which are an important part of Silk Road history. Our research contributes to the understanding how to protect mudbrick buildings from environmental factors and deformation processes.

Over the past two decades, four Uzbek historic cities and four “intangible cultural heritage” traditions have been raised to the World Heritage List. Yet none of these is in Karakalpakstan, and a painful disconnect appears between the zeal to protect the cultures and monuments of southern Uzbekistan and inaction in identifying and addressing the huge cultural as well as environmental losses most directly associated with the death of the Aral Sea. In this chapter, a U.S.-based cultural historian and conservation-preservation practitioner offers impressions and cultural and spatial material analysis of some of the historic places included on a recent study team tour of Uzbekistan to explore the impacts of the Aral Sea disaster. It is apparent that three-term president Islam Karimov has made culture a linchpin of his program of Uzbek growth and security, cultivated a higher and higher profile for his regime within UNESCO, and focused intensely on interpretation and material conservation of historic sites favoring the themes of his own regime. The focus of this chapter is the disconnect between the emerging national and achieved Aral Sea narratives.

During our visit to the Aral Region, our exchange team had a lengthy meeting with a former Karakalpak leader, Ubbiniyaz A. Ashirbekov. Director of the Executive Committee, Nukus Branch, International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. As we sat in his cramped office in Nukus, he pointed in despair to the bookshelves on his wall, filled to the ceiling with multiple millions of dollars of studies of how to address the Aral disaster. The sea level had fallen and in its place there rose a pile of books. If only they could have been employed to dam the remaining waters they might have served some utility. Much as the Soviets before them, those designing solutions to the region's problems think big. A big disaster requires a big solution with big impacts and a very big budget. But, perhaps a big disaster requires many small solutions instead, each designed to mesh with the others but not so interdependent that the failure of one brings down the lot.

In these comments, I share my long-term thoughts on the Aral disaster. I begin with my philosophical position. For the restoration of the Aral Sea to even become possible, we must change the current human relationship to the Earth. Then, within that first context, I turn to a concrete proposal to address water management affecting the Aral region.

This chapter discusses population issues in Uzbekistan as regards current trends in urban social organization. The majority of the population is young and confronted with challenging problems both global and local in nature. Uzbekistan is also experiencing a demographic shift as changes in the national economy prompt people to move to urban areas from the countryside. This shifts the numbers and sizes of cities, but also places new demands on natural resources like water. Uzbekistan's geography has advantages and limitations for urban sprawl. Its culture offers a major advantage described in the author's original research: a form of spatial and social organization for civil society found in Uzbek cities. Problems of urbanization can be addressed through this feature in Uzbek society called the mahalla. Mahalla promote stability and continuity within a community and a means whereby common interests can be represented outside the community. This chapter investigates the contributing factors to that stability and mahalla's ability to handle the dynamics of rural to urban migration.

This chapter addresses the need for groundwater resource management in the arid and semiarid zones of Uzbekistan, broadly and specifically the potential to prolong the functional life of water wells by rehabilitating capacity and developing new methods and devices for cleaning and protecting well filter screens. The urgency of this concern is felt most deeply in areas lacking potable water, most notably the larger Aral region. If achieved, the result will facilitate access to adequate supplies of potable water in a region where the surface waters are seriously depleted and polluted. Springs that once bubbled to the surface to form oases were surrounded by life in the desert. Perhaps reliable water wells are the basis of tomorrow's new oases.

The use of fossil fuels in developing countries places increasing economic, health, and environmental costs on the population. In decentralized and rural communities without existing grid systems, direct solar technologies provide the basis for electricity production, for water pumping and hot water, and for heating of houses. Examples and case studies for each of these direct solar technologies are presented which may be directly applicable or potentially modified for rural development in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which have ample direct solar resources. Related design involving both daylighting and passive cooling are described as part of the incorporation of passive solar heating techniques.

Uzbekistan easily gets 300 days of sunshine a year, and is a natural choice for development of solar technologies and their implementation. Central Asia is working together to solve critical water problems including contamination and dry wells. This chapter addresses the need to find solutions for rural populations living in the shadow of the Aral Sea disaster, with poor quality drinking water and limited infrastructure. With assistance from generous government funding, the Institute for Solar Energy is developing new point-based solar desalinization and pumping technologies. Preliminary designs are promising and government support for raw materials mining and wafer production are growing. Domestic R&D and production ensures cost-effective dissemination options. The Institute houses both research and project management for all solar technologies and expects to field test prototypes within 2–3 years. Solar energy is a growing sector in the economy of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan currently relies almost entirely on oil and gas for its energy resources. However, it has massive potential for solar energy, with short-run viability particularly for adoption of solar hot water and solar thermal. Wind power potential is also strong. In this chapter policies are discussed which will promote the rapid adoption of renewable energy in Uzbekistan.

Permaculture, as a design science supporting “permanent culture,” has developed experience globally in ecologically regenerative design. The Aral Sea watershed provides a unique opportunity to apply a relevant design process aiming at restoration of ecological function. Permacultural practice follows a core of ethics and principles and a basic design process based on such factors as stakeholder analysis, water harvesting principles, and the scale of permanence. The focus of permacultural interventions is on water, forests, and perennial vegetation, balanced with human needs. This chapter highlights key elements of the design process and summarizes the process of permaculture rehabilitation. Given success in similar situations working at a smaller-scale suggests a potential approach for regeneration in the Aral Sea Basin.

The Aral Sea Disaster was a failure of social learning. Rather than evidencing a society that learned from its experiences and modified its behavior to create outcomes that could be sustained over time, there was a self-destructive element in the Soviet approach that, in this case, proved amazingly effective. Once an idea was advanced from the top, a whole array of social mechanisms were deployed to take the concept at its literal or face value and make it into an unassailable truth, even when many of the actors fully understood the futility, foolishness or destructiveness of the venture. Moreover, it was the nature of the system to employ a rigid system of accountability even for a lax system of feasibility. People lost careers, homes and lives for failure to meet quotas. More often, numbers were doctored. Blame was shifted to the least powerful while the true weakest links were bolstered. Corruption further distorted a system that was based on distortion. Everything in the system was a distortion but for the one crucial ability to deliver the required action, regardless of the outcome. The western concept of gridlock, where a project faces innumerable hurdles, applies here only to the correctives, mitigations and solutions, but not to principle action.

This chapter explores the lessons of the Aral Sea disaster for social learning and for achieving future sustainability in the Aral region. Evident is what might be called “the law of delayed response” which states that social response tends to lag behind deteriorating ecological conditions. The bounding of the Aral Sea problems at various scales of consideration from local to global is explored, with a particular emphasis on the importance of a bioregional approach. Not only is the Aral disaster a global problem, part of the overall climate crisis, but it is also a much replicated disaster, sharing a global but decentralized impact. Proposals address the need for sustainable outcomes in the Aral region.

Given the failure to save the Aral Sea, new ways of thinking are needed to avert future disasters unleashed by climate change or other events. The threat to glaciers calls attention to the people of mountain regions who are the stewards to these “water towers in the sky.” Mountain partnerships are forming across the globe to help build public recognition and support for the unique vulnerabilities and assets of such regions to rapid climate change. A parallel Mountain Coalition would reach down the mountain to form relationships between upstream and downstream countries. Such linkages are a viable approach to pursue common cause and avoid conflict while helping to address and limit negative climate consequences.

Bakhtiyor Abdullayev is the leader of the Samarkand region branch of eco movement, a green political party in Uzbekistan and professor of Soil Science at Samarkand Agricultural Institute. Dr. Abdullaev earned his Ph.D. in Agriculture in 1990. He held the position of vice dean for academics for several years. He actively participates in the ecological political movement at the regional and national levels.

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Research in Social Problems and Public Policy
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