[A-List] Russia: Aral Sea -- the sequel?
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Dec 17 05:30:21 MST 2002
Russian water on troubled soils
By Sergei Blagov
Asia Times, December 18 2002
MOSCOW - All of a sudden, an influential Russian politician, Moscow Mayor
Yuri Luzhkov, has moved to revive a bold plan to build a 2,225-km
Siberia-Central Asia Canal to divert Siberian rivers into Asian deserts.
However, other Russian officials and experts warn that the project's
economic viability is far from certain.
Earlier this month, Luzhkov sent an official letter to President Vladimir
Putin, suggesting construction of a 16-meter-deep and 200-meter-wide canal
from Khanty-Mansiisk to Central Asia through Kazakhstan.
The Siberian river diversion plan involves the construction of a huge canal,
which would bring additional water from the Siberian Ob river (subsequently
the Irtysh) to the Central Asian Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The canal
project would involve diverting about 6-7 percent of the Ob's waters or some
27 cubic kilometers a year.
Luzhkov argued that selling excess fresh water to Central Asia could prove a
lucrative project for Russia. According to Luzhkov, the canal would enlarge
the amount of arable land in Central Asia by roughly 2 million hectares, and
by 1.5 million hectares in southern Siberia.
The project has an estimated price tag of between US$12 billion and $20
billion, an exorbitant amount for impoverished Central Asian states. It is
not a small amount even for Russia, currently awash with petrodollars.
However, Luzhkov suggested forming an International Eurasian Consortium
funded by loans collateralized by future proceeds from fresh water sales to
Some Russian experts, though, are pessimistic. The plan to divert Siberian
rivers is a "wicked idea", argues Alexander Nazarov, head of the Northern
Affairs committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian
parliament. The waters of the Ob river are too polluted by nearby oil
fields, Nazarov announced on December 16. This opinion was echoed by Nikolai
Glazovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Geography. "Such an idea
should not be nurtured by any normal-thinking person," Glazovsky told
journalists on December 16.
Russian media outlets have also ridiculed Luzhkov's proposal, and the
Kommersant daily quoted one government source as suggesting that the idea be
checked not by economists but by mental health experts. However, it is
understood that the mayor is lobbying in favor of Moscow's huge complex of
municipal construction companies, which could get lucrative contracts in the
course of the canal project.
Normalization and eventual peaceful development in Afghanistan would mean
growth in the Amu Darya's water consumption there by some 10 cubic
kilometers a year, according to Luzhkov's estimates. That would mean that
Uzbekistan's fresh water supply could be halved, Luzhkov's draft suggests.
Both Central Asian rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, flow to the Aral
Sea - the Syr Darya from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and
the Amu Darya from Tajikistan through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In recent
decades, irrigation has so depleted both rivers that in most years no water
has reached the Aral Sea.
No big wonder, then, that Central Asian governments back the plan to divert
Siberian waters. The on-going environmental disaster around the Aral Sea,
which affects some 50 million people, should not be viewed as an internal
problem of any state or Central Asian region, Tajik President Emomali
Rahmonov reportedly told a meeting of donors for saving the Aral Sea in
Dushanbe, Tajikistan, earlier this month. According to the RIA news agency,
the meeting concluded that the Aral Sea could not be saved without the
Siberian river diversion scheme.
By 2020, according to United Nations experts, the shrinking Aral Sea may no
longer exist. UN Environmental Program specialists estimate that the Aral's
surface area is now just 25 percent of that before Soviet central planners
began diverting the rivers that feed the sea for ill-conceived agricultural
irrigation schemes. There is little that can be done at this stage to save
the sea from extinction, the UN experts say.
The revival of the Siberia-Central Asia Canal plan comes as yet another page
in the project's longish saga. Through the 1970s and the 1980s, the water
resources ministry of the former Soviet Union sponsored a water diversion
blueprint, and nearly succeeded in launching actual construction.
However, the project was condemned by Russian scholars, who argued that
diverting river waters could upset the global environmental balance. These
protests became the roots of Russia's homegrown environmental movement. The
Soviet government also found the project not feasible economically, hence in
the mid-1980s the plan was abandoned.
However, the project is being revitalized at a time when Central Asian
states are struggling to share water resources, and Uzbekistan faces serious
problems. Agriculture is the cornerstone of the country's economy, and
thirsty crops such as cotton and rice require intensive irrigation.
Uzbekistan's agricultural infrastructure is dependent on irrigation, which
consumes about 90 percent of the country's water resources. In 2001, the
country's rice crop reportedly plunged by over 50 percent as compared to
2000, due to lack of water.
In recent months, Uzbekistan has sponsored a number of conferences to
support the canal project. One gathering in Tashkent suggested the
establishment of an international consortium to develop the project and
sought support from leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Russia. The gathering specifically argued that the canal could help to
supply more water to Russia's Tyumen, Kurgan and Orenburg regions.
The Russian government is yet to come up with any official reaction relative
to the canal project. However, some officials have indicated that Russia
itself may face water shortages. Increasing deficiency of clean fresh water
is among Russia's most urgent macro-economic and geopolitical problems,
Russia's natural resources minister Vitaly Artyukhov announced last
Brazil tops the list of big players in fresh water, with 12.7 percent of the
world's renewable supply, while Russia is second with 10.2 percent and China
trails third with 8.3 percent, according to the Washington-based World
In the meantime, competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an
alarming rate, adding tension to what is already a volatile region. During
the Soviet era, water and energy resources were exchanged freely across
Central Asia, and Moscow provided the funds to build and maintain
infrastructure. Water use has increased since the Central Asian states
became independent in 1991 and is now at an unsustainable level. Due to lack
of funding, irrigation systems have decayed and half of all irrigation water
never reaches crops.
The problem is that the five Central Asian states have largely failed to
come up with a viable multi-lateral approach to replace the Soviet system of
management. Therefore, disputes over water and energy have been second only
to Islamic extremism as a source of tension in Central Asia, according to a
recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based
Shortly after independence, the five countries agreed to maintain the
Soviet-era quota system, but this has become unworkable. In the wake of the
civil war in Tajikistan and the decay of Kyrgyzstan's economy,
water-monitoring facilities have fallen into disrepair.
Moreover, an annual cycle of disputes has developed between the three
downstream countries - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - which are
all heavy consumers of water for growing cotton, and the upstream nations -
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, according to ICG. The downstream countries
require more water for their growing agricultural sectors and rising
populations, while the economically weaker upstream countries want to use
more water for electricity generation.
Moreover, Turkmenistan is using too much water to the detriment of
Uzbekistan, which in turn has been accused by Kazakhstan of taking more than
its share. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan say that the three downstream countries
are all exceeding quotas. Even within Uzbekistan, provinces have accused one
another of using too much water.
Moreover, a multilateral agreement between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and
Kyrgyzstan on how to divide the Syr Darya's waters between them expires in
2003, while these countries are yet to agree on a new deal.
The ICG has warned that disputes over water and energy have contributed to a
growth of tension in Central Asia. For instance, Uzbekistan has carried out
military exercises that look suspiciously like practice runs at capturing by
force the Toktogul water reservoir in Kyrgyzstan. Last February, when
Kazakhstan stopped supplying electricity to parts of Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz
prime minister threatened to leave parts of Kazakhstan without water for
irrigation. Hence experts warn that competition for water can only increase
in the region.
Therefore, the Siberia-Central Asia Canal could be instrumental in easing
tensions over scarce water resources in the volatile region - all that is
needed is the political will - and the little matter of about $20 billion.
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