Science - May 13, 2004

Water engineer warns that West is ignoring Aral disaster

An ecological and human crisis is unfolding in the Aral region of Central Asia. The desert and vast salt flats are on the increase, making the lives of farmers impossible. According to water specialist Herco Jansen of Alterra-Ilri, a major problem has been created by the outdated Soviet drainage methods, and Western countries are neglecting this tragic development.

Jansen went last month on a three-week mission to Uzbekistan where Alterra-Ilri has been working for over ten years. The scale of the disaster made a deep impression on him: “The agricultural soils are becoming more and more saline, and crop production is declining rapidly. It’s a disaster, as about twenty million people in the region depend on agriculture for their living, and the country has no other natural resources like minerals or oil as a source of income.”

Jansen finds it tragic that Uzbekistan and the surrounding countries do not get much financial assistance from the West for the fight against environmental degradation. “The Aral region is not one of the priorities for the Dutch government and the World Bank is not investing much in the region either. I believe the problems in the area are underestimated and merit more attention.”

It is a sombre picture: the Aral Sea is drying up quickly as the rivers that flow into it have been tapped heavily for irrigation water. The Aral Sea has been reduced to less than twenty percent of its original water volume, a disaster for fisheries. Barren salt flats have developed, and salt and pesticides carried by the wind have led to many health problems. But Jansen points out that salinity is affecting a much larger region, along the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that flow down from the mountains of Tadzhikistan and Kirgyzstan.

Whole areas of steppe have been brought under cotton cultivation, and the excessive irrigation practices have made the soil dangerously saline. A common practice to overcome problems of salinity is to create artificial drainage using ditches or pipes, but this has only made matters worse in the Aral region. Jansen: “Soviet engineers constructed an intricate and widespread drainage system, but it went too deep. Not only the salts in the top layers have been wrenched out of the soil, but also from deeper layers.” The result is an excess of salty water that needs to go somewhere. “The salty water is drained away to depressions in the desert, but there are not enough of these, so the salty water ends up on the agricultural lands, damaging crops.”

Jansen’s advice is to only drain the top layers. This way the deeper lying salt remains where it can do no harm. This is also a relatively cheap measure; although according to Jansen a lot more needs to be done in addition to fight the salt. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to make the agricultural sector healthy again.” A problem is that Uzbekistan and the surrounding countries are much poorer than most people think, Jansen says. A visit to the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, can be deceptive: there are good roads, an excellent subway system and beautiful buildings with marble floors constructed during the Soviet era, but this rich heritage does not reflect the poor state of the economy.

Hugo Bouter