On November 27th, UN Secretary General António Guterres announced a new initiative aimed at increasing the sustainability of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The UN Human Security Unit, in cooperation with Uzbekistan, Japan, Nigeria and Norway, launched the Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea Region (MPHSTF). Describing the initiative as a “new chapter for communities in the region,” Guterres outlined the MPHSTF’s goal to strengthen community development and reduce health and environmental risks in the region.
The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has been greatly depleted in what former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, speaking in 2012, called, “one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.” During the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted rivers in Central Asia in order to irrigate the desert and grow the cotton industry. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which once flowed into the Aral Sea, were overused for irrigation and hydroelectric initiatives. As a result, the Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its size over a 60 year period. Between 1960 and 1991, salinity levels of the water increased by 300%, making the water unfit to drink and killing off over two thirds of the native marine life. Port cities such as Aral and Mu’ynoq lie miles from the sea and the fishing economy that formerly sustained them has dried up.
The North Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is in far better condition than the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, after an $85 million project financed with the help of the World Bank saw the construction of the Kokaral Dam in 2005. The project surpassed expectations, increasing the water mass in the North Aral Sea by 18%. Marine species that were on the brink of extinction have returned to the sea and the fishing industry has grown by 600% in the last twelve years.
The benefits of the Kokaral Dam for the North Aral Sea have come at the expense of the South Aral Sea, which continues to shrink in Uzbekistan. Despite this, Kazakhstan’s Permanent UN Representative, Kairat Umarov, expressed his belief that “Central Asian countries should rally for coordination to reduce vulnerability in the region.”
The shrinking of the Aral Sea has had its most harmful effects on the people of Karalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. The Karalpaks, who live by the now dry basin of the South Aral Sea, suffer severe health problems as a result of dust storms from the exposed seabed, which bring dust containing salt, fertilizer and pesticide. The infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, and throat cancer and kidney disease are common.
A 2017 UN socio-economic survey of Karalpak households found that employment was their top priority, followed by environmental concerns, transport infrastructure and improved access to medicine and drinkable water. In response, the MPHSTF aims to consult with local communities more than ever before in an effort to reduce poverty and provide environmental, economic, food, social and health security for the population around the Aral Sea. Musa Erniyazov, representing Karalpakstan, expressed optimism at the creation of the MPHSTF, saying, “We genuinely believe that this initiative will improve the lives of those in Karalpakstan.”
Representatives at the UN event on Tuesday noted that similar strategies could be adopted around the world. Tijjani Muhammad Bande, Nigeria’s Permanent UN Representative, compared the deteriorating Aral Sea with Lake Chad: “You could simply change the names, the Aral region has the same issues facing the Lake Chad Basin.”
António Guterres warned that water stress is increasing around the world as a result of increasing demand, poor management and climate change. Fortunately, international assistance in Central Asia from the 1990s onward has helped to facilitate cooperation between the former Soviet republics in the region and minimize conflict over the water there. Should Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the international community continue to restore the Aral Sea, the region may serve as a model for dealing with future water crises around the world.
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