International cooperation can create recovery from the Aral Sea disaster

By Dave Armstrong - 30 Oct 2014 11:41:0 GMT
International cooperation can create recovery from the Aral Sea disaster

The Kyzyl Kum desert is extending with climate change, but the freezing winters and red-hot summers match the colourful sand. This great varanid is the desert monitor, photographed in the vicinity of Bukhara (Varanus griseus); Monitor image; Credit: © Shutterstock

As the environmental and anthropogenic tragedy of the Aral Sea is exacerbated by climate change and lack of action, an international conference in Urgench has elicited a substantial increase in aid from the UN, Turkey, the EU, and the German Federal Government. On the ecological side of things, the current hope is for a regeneration of some water bodies in the south of the old sea bed, matching some successful lakes in Kazakhstan with more Uzbek examples.

Many diverse nations were represented in Uzbekistan, under the aegis of President Islam Karimov’s Deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Asimov. (UNEP and UNESCO were joined by UNECE and CAEC, ESCAP and ICADA - much more later on the billions of dollars-worth of help proposed by these nations as well as the agencies.) Several groups worked on presentations of ideas and past successes such as Turkish transfer of water between watersheds.

However, with no fish remaining in the Aral, the twin threat of further extinctions and decreasing diversity within many species gene pools is facing 11 plant species, 29 birds and 12 mammals. Saiga antelope often accompany the desert monitor above the heat of the desert that has now spread over the Aral region. This particular species have now decreased to 1700 individuals (from 6100 in just 4 years.)

3 programmes for recovery have been struggling away to restore some ecosystems, conserve diversity and, especially, protect these remaining animals and plants. Now the 3rd programme, ASBP3, is being carried out, completing its limited objectives by 2015. One associated success was in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan recently signing a cross border agreement. It should sustain and manage the saiga stocks on the Ustyurrt Plateau, as they migrate across the desert.

Water, naturally, is the key. Forest regeneration, admittedly using non-native salt-resistant species (eg. the highly adaptable successor to the doomed American elm, Fraxinus pennsylvanica) has also been attempted and is literally growing fast, despite the infancy of the various projects. The water restoration only goes so far as Lake Sudochie in the southern Aral Sea. Formerly vanishing fast, it is now back to its original 40,000 hectares. Muskrats (used for pelts) and specially bred fish species have been re-introduced in efforts to jump-start some economic growth, while many species of migratory birds that used to be found on the Sea are now using thee freshwater facilities.

The tugai is the natural riparian ecosystem, found in areas such as the Lower Amu Darya, around the fabulous city of Samarkand. At least in the biosphere reserve there, since 2011 there is potential for tamarisk, buckthorn and poplar to conserve their ecosystem. To complete the conservation, many insects, mammals and birds that have always lived among the rich community will also need to be protected. All in all, there are 19 areas that require conservation, making up a large 32.2% or the Aral Sea region. 7 million hectares have been added to the protected areas by the Uzbek government. Although the Aral Sea seems now lost forever, recovery of those water bodies and riverine habitats will now progress as water conservation is enabled by modern irrigation techniques using the latest technology to monitor both water loss and species survival.

The negativity of the past now seems to have bypassed the ecological disaster. With international cooperation on other areas too, such as governance of water and creating a healthy population that can recover from the terrible conditions created by dust and pollution, the ecology of man, beast and tree can be recovered to a large extent in this beleaguered region. For the less well-off people of the area, the UNEP speaker, Nara Luvsan had some telling words. “The forests Uzbekistan are growing are the GDP of the poor,” according to her philosophy. Such afforestation and fish production opportunities certainly provide wildlife with better opportunity here.

The Uzbeks have their conference site here, full of even richer veins on how the Aral Sea disaster is to be finally dealt with.