Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Aralkum Desert

Once the 4th largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has reduced to only 10% of its original size in under 50 years due to over abstraction of water in the rivers which feed the sea.  The world's newest desert, the Aralkum, has formed as a consequence, leaving fishing villages many miles from the coast and fishing boats stranded in the desert.  The once thriving fishing industry is gone, along with twenty out of twenty four indigenous species. Dust, sand and salt from the now exposed sea bed are stirred up by the wind, causing high levels of respiratory illness.

The images paint a very powerful picture of the impact that we can have on nature.

The decision to abstract water for irrigation from the two principle rivers which feed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, was well intentioned - part of the Soviet era campaign to turn nature to mankind's use and to provide an opportunity to develop agriculture on an industrial scale, to elevate the peasantry and create a manufacturing industry in what was considered a backward part of the state.

But the cotton has not been the source of prosperity that was hoped for, at least not for the producers. Uzbekistan, on the south side of the Aral Sea, is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton but the industry is state-controlled. The price paid to growers is set by the government: in 2009 it was 3p per kilo, compared to the international market rate, which hit a historic high of £1.45 per kilo. During the cotton harvest, schools close down and it has been estimated that half of the Uzbek cotton exported has been picked by children.  The cotton is all that there is, so to stop irrigating the crop and allow more water to flow to the Aral Sea would be to impose even greater hardship on already impoverished and desperate people.

The coast of the Aral sea is split between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan with the Amu Darya, also known as the Oxus, flowing in to the sea through Uzbekistan in the south and the Syr Darya flowing in to the north east of the sea from Kazakstan.  This has resulted in political frictions between the two former Soviet republics over how best to address the problems, or whether there even are any problems.  Greatest progress has been made in the north, where a dike has been constructed to allow part of the sea to become deeper, thus reducing the proportion of water lost to evaporation - if the water is very shallow it would heat up more and there would be greater evaporation for a given surface area.  This process could be repeated, building further dikes incrementally to expand the sea but this will take decades.

In the southern Aral Sea, there is little political will to remediate the damage done and in a new twist, the Uzbeks have begun oil prospecting on the former sea bed.

The formation of the Aralkum Desert has been man's doing, of that there is no doubt, and it may be an extreme example of the damage we can do in only two or three generations but it is not the only example. Do you know where the cotton that you are wearing cotton originated?  It is much more difficult to trace its origins than it is for foodstuffs; perhaps we should try harder to ensure that the producers get a fair price for their labours, leading to a smaller crop and reduced water usage but still with a living wage. Difficult to achieve  for a state controlled industry in a global market without imposing further hardship on the farmers. Any suggestions?

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