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Long term solutions

Dozens of inquiries, projects and research teams have poked and prodded the Aral problem; locals joke that if every scientist who visited the Aral region had brought a bucket of water the problem would be over by now. The initial outcry over the disaster seems to have largely evaporated, along with the sea, and the focus has shifted from rehabilitating the sea, to stabilising part of the sea and now stabilising the environment around the sea.

To restore the Aral would require irrigation from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya to cease for three years, or at least a slashing of the irrigated area from over 70,000 to 40,000 sq km; in other words, a complete restructuring of the economies of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. No one is seriously considering this.

Finally in 1988 a gradual increase in water flow to the sea was ordered, to be achieved by more efficient irrigation and an end to the expansion of irrigation. However, early promises of cooperation and money from the Central Asian leaders bore little fruit. The now annual Aral Sea convention of Central Asian leaders has achieved little, except to highlight conflicting claims to sections of the Amu-Darya. A US$250-million World Bank scheme aims to clean up water supplies, improve sanitation and public health, restore some economic viability and biodiversity to the Amu-Darya delta, and stabilise the Aral’s northern sea.

In 2003 the little channel still connecting the northern and southern seas was blocked by a 12.8km-long dike, preventing further water loss from the northern sea, but condemning the southern sea to oblivion. The northern sea is now expected to rise almost 3.5m and should reach a state of equilibrium by about 2025, sooner if a second dam is constructed by 2014 as planned. But if recent rates of depletion continue, the southern sea is expected to split again into western and eastern parts.

The eastern part will receive the Amu-Darya and is expected eventually to stabilise into three lakes with the construction of small dikes, but the western part will go on shrinking. Longer-term efforts may focus on building more dikes around parts of the sea, rehabilitating the blighted region around the sea and stabilising its fragile environment, improving water management and building up local institutions to manage these projects. Whether the will exists among Central Asia’s politicians to introduce less water-intensive irrigation methods, or even less thirsty crops than cotton, remains to be seen.