30 years later, the hope of restoring the flood of the lake
NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM – Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been on Kazakhstan’s national environmental agenda for years. Last week, the Kazakh Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources announced that the measures taken over the years had increased the volume of water by 11.5 cubic meters. More information on efforts to revive the lake over the past few years and its progress can be found in Kazinform’s latest analytical article.
The Aral Sea is today one of the notorious environmental problems on a global scale. Located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in the 1950s it was the fourth largest lake on the planet, just behind the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior and Lake Victoria.
After the Soviet Union decided to divert its source rivers – the Amu Darya to the south and the Syr Darya to the northeast, for agricultural purposes to cultivate the cotton industry and rice paddies, the sea began to shrink , causing serious environmental, social and public problems. health problems.
Moreover, the unsustainable water management practices used by the Soviet Union caused enormous damage to the landscape and ecosystem. From its original area of 68,000 square meters, the sea has shrunk to a tenth of its original size.
In 1989, the lake split into two separate water masses, the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea. Managing the drying up of the sea became more difficult when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries with different water policies.
“Kok Aral is on our territory, where the Syr Darya flows. The Greater Aral (referring to the southern Aral) is in the territory of Uzbekistan, where the Amu Darya flows. The flow rate of the Syr Darya was almost twice as low as that of the Amu Darya,” said Kazakh water expert Erlan Badashev.
The intensive development of deserts and semi-deserts to increase the irrigated areas in the Aral Sea basin (up to 7.9 million hectares) contributed to an increase in water withdrawals from 63 to 117 cubic meters per year.
Hydroelectric development upstream of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya between 1960 and 1980 without regard to the Aral Sea resulted in a decrease in water inflow to 9 – 12 cubic meters instead of historical inflow of 60 cubic meters per year. This has caused the Aral Sea to lose its fishing, transport and recreational value, while the unique landscape areas of the delta and the floodplains of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya have been degraded.
According to the Kazakh Ministry data.
In the end, the sea moved away from the previous shore in some places by more than 100-150 kilometers.
Growing environmental issues
Rising levels of pollution and salinity have led to serious environmental and health consequences. According to data from the ministry, the salinity of the sea has increased sharply, from 10-15 g/l in historical times to more than 30 g/l.
Rising salinity levels have led to water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, leaving fisheries and local communities without access to fresh water.
But this is only part of a larger problem.
“Naturally, local people are exposed to salt water and out of 2,000, only 32% had access to safe drinking water. An increased frequency of storms lifts 43 million tonnes of dust and sand from the dry seabed into the air every year. As a result, the rate of dust deposition is among the highest in the world and contains large amounts of salts and pesticides, likely related to the water quality of tributary rivers,” wrote experts Turid Austin Wæhler and Erik Sveberg Dietrichs in their 2017 article.
Salt dust is also common near the Aral Sea. But this salt, which is generated from the dried parts of the Aral Sea, contains not only salt, but other toxic elements.
“You can’t see the cars. You can’t see the sun. There was salt and sand in the air. But it is not the salt that we see on our table. There are many other substances that enter our lungs,” said Natalie Barteneva, professor of biology at Nazarbayev University.
In addition to the health consequences, it also harms agriculture and herds.
Among other sources of pollution, the region’s mining industry dumps heavy metals into the rivers that feed the sea.
What did Kazakhstan do?
Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has undertaken efforts to restore the Aral Sea. The construction of a 13 kilometer long Kok-Aral dam in 2005, an 85 million dollar project initiated by Kazakhstan with funding from the World Bank, was the major breakthrough in this area. It separated the smaller but less polluted and salty northern Aral Sea from the southern part. The move had a positive impact on water levels, salinity levels and fisheries.
In 2018 and 2019, the national geographical society Qazaq Geography organized expeditions to the Aral Sea to study the current state of the sea and its prospects.
“Northern Aral is reborn. The salinity level decreased from 0.6 to 0.8%. The fish are back there. The Southern Aral, however, continues to dry out,” Barteneva said.
But tackling the drying up of the sea presents certain challenges. One way is to build a dam in the south, she said. “But its location should be determined by an international team of scientists,” she added.
According to Badashev, water should be a unifying factor, “whether we like it or not”. “The Aral Sea is common to everyone, so problems should be solved together,” the expert said.
One of the biggest projects implemented in the region is the Syr Darya bed regulation project and the conservation of the northern part of the Aral Sea.
The first phase of the project saw the construction of the North Aral Sea dam, the complex of Aitek structures, the protection dams on the Syr Darya river and the hydroelectric facilities of the city of Kyzylorda, Kazalinsk, the dams of the Shardara and Arnasay reservoirs.
According to the ministry, the project increased the flow capacity of the Syr Darya river channel from 350 to 700 cubic meters per second and reduced the salinity of the water from 23 to 17 grams per litre.
“The availability of water from irrigation systems and lakes has increased. Safety of operation of Shardara Dam and stabilization of operation regime of Shardara Hydropower Plant have been improved,” the ministry said.
Although the measures may have provided some results, hopes for a full recovery are low and the effectiveness of ongoing measures has yet to be assessed.
Written by Assel Satubaldina