Tuesday, April 16, 2024
 
 

Kazakhstan leads regional cooperation to save the Aral Sea

International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea Chairman outlines priorities to solve environmental problems
The Executive Board of the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea in the Republic of Kazakhstan
The remains of the Aral Sea

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In 2024, Kazakhstan will play a prominent role in international affairs, hosting several representative summits and forums, as well as taking the helm of several international organizations, including the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between the Southern part of Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan. Formerly the world’s fourth largest lake in area, the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s and largely dried up by the 2010s. The two rivers that feed it are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively reaching the Sea through the South and the North.

By establishing a program to expand agricultural production into new areas of the country and especially that of cotton, the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s-60s intentionally diverted much of the Aral Sea’s two main sources of water, according to a Columbia University report. Not only was all this water being diverted into canals at the expense of the Aral Sea supply, but the majority of it was being soaked up by the desert instead of going to agriculture as intended, which ultimately wasted between 25% and 75% of it, depending on the time period.

The water level in the Aral Sea started drastically declining from the 1960s onward. In normal conditions, the Aral Sea gets approximately one fifth of its water supply through rainfall, while the rest is delivered to it by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Evaporation normally causes the water level to decrease by the same amount that flows into the Sea, making it sustainable as long as inflow is equal to evaporation on average. Therefore the diversion of the two rivers is the cause of the imbalance that caused the sea to slowly desiccate over the last 4 decades, according to Columbia University.

A sharp increase in salinization of lands is one of the most negative consequences of Aral Sea crisis. Groundwater level decline has also caused salt accumulation in the subsoils.

Askhat Orazbay, the Chairperson of the Executive Committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), in which Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship for 2024-2026, said IFAS plans a series of activities aimed at improving the situation in the Aral Sea basin and serving the interests of the peoples and states of Central Asia for 30 years.

“In modern realities, with ubiquitous population growth, rapid economic development of states, and an increase in water consumption per capita, the burden on the environment is steadily increasing. Such an intensification of anthropogenic impact provokes and accelerates the processes of global climate change,” Orazbay said, adding that in Central Asia, all these processes are proceeding at a faster pace than the global average.

He warned that the ecological crisis in the Aral Sea basin is accompanied by progressive scarcity and pollution of water resources, land degradation and desertification of vast territories, loss of forests, eco-landscapes and biodiversity. “On a huge area of the dried–up bottom of the Aral Sea, a new desert has formed – Aralkum, with a size of more than 54,000 square kilometers,” Orazbay said, noting that it is comparable to the territory of Croatia and much larger than Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

In these tense conditions, it is highly relevant for the Central Asian States to elaborate new mechanisms for developing cooperation in the region, he said. “The main goal of the chairmanship of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the IFAS is to further increase the level of cooperation on the integrated use and protection of water resources, solving environmental problems, socio-economic aspects and introducing elements of a green economy in Central Asian countries, the IFAS chairman said.

“During the period of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship, we will continue to implement two main programs approved by the IFAS Board: Aral Sea Basin Program-4 (ASBP-4) and its systematic monitoring, as well as the Regional Environmental Protection Program for the Sustainable Development of Central Asia (REPPSD CA). The period of implementation of the both Programs – until 2030,” Orazbay said.

“The environmental problem of the Aral Sea began to appear in the 1960s and 1970s, which has led to the fact that there is practically nothing left from the 4th largest lake on our planet,” he said.

During the years of Independence, Kazakhstan, with the support of the World Bank, carried out comprehensive work and was able to restore a little part – the Small Aral or the Northern Aral Sea, but this is only about 8% of its original value. The port city of Aralsk is still far from the water, which at first went 100 km away, but after the measures taken it came much closer.

“Particles and dust of salts and toxic chemicals left on the drained bottom of the Aral Sea are found not only in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains, but also far beyond the borders of our region. In order to reduce the removal of harmful substances, the countries of the Aral Sea region are actively engaged in phytomeliorative measures, planting of saxaul (Haloxylon) and other vegetation,” Orazbay said.

“But are plantings on the former bottom of the reservoir so effective? What is the current state of ecosystems?” he asked. “As it is known, due to several low-water years in a row, the flow along the Syr Darya has decreased and the volume of water in the Northern Aral Sea has lessened from a maximum of 27 to 20 cubic kilometers. The catch of fish has declined and this has a negative impact on the employment of the local population. The morbidity rate of the population is growing again due to desertification and deterioration of water quality,” he said, asking, “Will the tragedy happen again? What are the moods and plans of the locals?”

Testing the surface part of an acoustic fish protection device.

There are a lot of questions and they are all interconnected. “I believe that we need to study the full range of problems and ongoing work, to update them and to try to solve them as soon as possible and more effectively. In the Aral Sea Basin Program-4 (ASBP-4), which I mentioned earlier, the environmental direction is highlighted as a separate main area, consisting of 12 project proposals,” Orazbay said.

He noted that joint actions are envisaged to adapt to climate change, including measures to adapt the most vulnerable sectors: water and agriculture, drinking water, energy, biodiversity, forest, pastures and mountain ecosystems. It was envisaged to develop a regional action plan for adaptation to climate change and, thanks to the support of the Program of the German Society for International Cooperation GIZ Green Central Asia, five of the countries in the region have developed and adopted a Regional Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change in Central Asia.

“It also provides for the dissemination of the best climate-adapted agricultural practices. We will have to develop a regional program for the protection of biological resources in Central Asia, implement measures to preserve and restore ecosystems in the basins of our main rivers – the Amudarya and the Syrdarya, and continue systematic forest plantations in the Aral Sea region (Priaralye) zone and on the drained bottom of the Aral Sea,” Orazbay said.

According to the IFAS chairman, the environmental projects underway aim to develop a system for monitoring the state of the environment and water resources in the Aral Sea region (Priaralye) and on the drained seabed. Additionally, they focus on developing environmental innovations and technologies specifically for the Priaralye zone.

“I consider such a project as improvement of water quality in rivers and reservoirs, taking into account international standards, elimination and prevention of pollution, including industrial waste to be very important,” Orazbay, explaining that Kazakhstan and other countries are working on joining the Protocol on Water and Health to the Convention on the Protection and Use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes, and Uzbekistan has recently joined it.

IFAS chairmanship priorities

Some of the projects projects that the Fund and Kazakhstan plan to promote during the IFAS chairmanship are reducing the risks of natural disasters associated with floods, mudflows and droughts in the Aral Sea basin, studying the state of glaciers in the upper reaches of transboundary rivers, and developing transboundary eco-corridors, regional networks of specially protected natural areas for the conservation of biodiversity, Orazbay said.

“If we talk about new initiatives that will be carried out within the framework of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in the IFAS, then this is the creation of a long-term and sustainable regional cooperation mechanism for the effective use of water and energy resources in Central Asia, taking into account the interests of all countries in the region in the fields of irrigation, hydropower and ecology,” he said.

Moreover, the IFAS chairman stressed that systematic work is also needed to implement a unified automated system for accounting, monitoring, management and distribution of water resources in the Aral Sea basin. At a meeting of the Council of Heads of States-Founders of the IFAS held on September 15, 2023, in Dushanbe, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the parties to begin implementing these initiatives.

To overcome environmental crisis and to improve socio-economic situation in the Aral Sea basin, acknowledged by the international community as one of the biggest catastrophes of the 20th century, in 1993 the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea has been created by the Heads of States of Central Asia.

Strengthening regional cooperation with international development partners, UN structural entities, financial institutions and the donor community plays an important role,” Orazbay said and added, it is worthwhile to intensify activities within the framework of generally accepted international environmental conventions, action plans, declarations and joint statements.”

He noted that in the period of 2024-2026 Kazakhstan will take measures to implement the instructions and agreements reached at the IFAS Summit in Dushanbe, as well as previously concluded agreements and commitments, which will ensure the consistency of Central Asia’s actions to achieve the global SDGs and its positioning as a single region.

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