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#36 - JRL 2007-154 - JRL Home
Date: Fri, 13 Jul 2007
From: Sergei Roy <SergeiRoy@yandex.ru>
Subject: reply to Peter Finn.JRL#151

Aral Sea: "Soviet Folly" or Asian Tragedy?
By Sergei Roy

On 10 July the Washington Post carried a piece by Peter Finn with this upbeat headline: "Aral Sea's Return Revives Withered Villages. Dam Begins to Diminish Ecological Disaster of Soviet-Era Irrigation" (see also Johnson's Russia List, 2007-#151, 10 July 2007).

The cause of jubilation: an $86 million, eight mile-long dam has been built, with World Bank and Kazakh government's money, across a narrow channel through which water had drained freely from the northern lake, a remnant of the dying Aral Sea, to the southern remnant. Now water from the Syr Darya river, what is left of it after irrigation, is no longer lost to the southern lakes, accumulating instead in the northern one, the mass of water in it is building up, and happy Kazakh fishermen can again "haul in flapping carp (Mr. Finn apparently means sazan, a wild relative of carp) and pikeperch."

You know, in the 1970s and 1980s, when I regularly went to those rugged but wonderful parts for a bit of sailing, spear-fishing, and shooting, the sea area of which Mr. Finn writes had long been known as Maly Aral, the Lesser Aral, as distinct from Bolshoy Aral, the Greater Aral (the WP author gives the impression that the names only came into use in 1990, when the Aral broke up into two parts. Not so, Mr. Finn). So the victory in this fight against a manmade disaster is limited to the small northern, or Kazakh part of the Aral Sea.

Now, what about the Greater Aral and the people inhabiting the southern, Uzbekistan's part of the former seacoast? Peter Finn is very clear about that: "The much larger southern parts of the Aral are still dying, though they get a bit of overflow from the dam. The Turkmen and Uzbek governments continue to draw most of the water from the Aral's second feeding river, the Amu Darya, to irrigate crops and sustain the lives of millions of people."

So what the dam-building triumph amounts to is this: the Kazakhs are saving the Syr Darya waters strictly for their own use, and the devil take the hindmost, in this case the Karakalpaks (Karakalpakia, or Karakalpakstan, as the "Black Hoods" prefer to call their land, is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan) living on the southern coast or what used to be the southern coast, around the Amu Darya delta or what used to be the Amu Darya delta.

This bit of news vividly reminded me of a scene from the early 1980s, when I was a guest of Viktor Zadorozhny, manager of Toguz Tereh, a vast hunting preserve on the southern coast of the Aral of which the main produce were muskrat pelts, a luxury item in Soviet times a shapka, fur-hat made of ondatra or muskrat pelt, instantly marked one as having access to defitsit, consumer items in short supply. Muskrats need water, and Toguz Tereh just two or three adobe huts -- stood on the shore of a huge reed-rimmed lake where millions of these cute little things were breeding happily and trapped come fall. But Viktor's neighbors, collective farmers, needed water, too, to irrigate their fields. They came with bulldozers to block the canal that fed the lake, Viktor grabbed his five-shot, 12-bore shotgun but the attackers had the police on their side, Viktor was tied up, the canal was blocked, the lake dried up, those cute little things became feed for jackals, end of story.

That's what this latest Kokaral dam triumph amounts to: robbing Peter to pay Paul. The scenario has been played out thousands of times throughout Central Asia's history. The Toguz Tereh dam was just a miniature forerunner of that $86 million wonder. There had been a much grander one the dam or dams that diverted a big portion of Amu Darya's water to the V.I. Lenin Karakum Canal which provided still does water for all of parched, desert-covered Turkmenistan (Karakum means "black sand" the name of the two biggest deserts of Central Asia, the other being Kzylkum, "red sand").

So any trumpeting of victory over a manmade disaster, the result of "Soviet planners' folly," is good for a nice-sounding headline to justify a journalist's flying trip to these wild parts, but not for much more.

Peter Finn describes most vividly the horrors attendant on the drying and dying of the Aral Sea: "Fierce dust storms kicked up not just sand and salt, but also chemicals and pesticides that had washed into the sea from intensive farming along the two rivers. Cancers, respiratory diseases, anemia, miscarriages, and kidney and liver diseases in the region soared, according to Kazakh statistics and local doctors."

The trouble with these graphic descriptions is, they may have some news value for Washington Post readers well into the 21st century, but not for environmentally concerned citizens here in Russia. Here is what I wrote in the Moscow News weekly back in 1995:

"The loose salty soil of the former seabed is now regularly lifted by the fierce desert winds and generously deposited all over the surrounding oases 520 kg of it per hectare per annum. The cumulative effect of this on the health of the crops and the 3.5 million people living along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya is horrendous. Slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, salt pickles and kills everything."

And so on, for a whole page spread, complete with statistics about those diseases Mr. Finn mentions, and much else.

Actually, my interest in the Aral Sea problem goes back even further, to the 1960s, when the manmade disaster was only looming on the horizon, when plans were made to build huge water reservoirs that would fill with water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya in winter and be used for irrigation in summer. The effect of this on the Aral, which only lives lived because the two rivers' runoff equaled the mass of water evaporating from its surface, would be obvious to an idiot. Disturb the balance, and the sea goes into irreversible decline.

All this had been prophesied in detail, among many others, by a professor of astronomy I'd met on a bicycling trek across Kazakhstan in the 1960s. The way he imaginatively put it, by killing the Aral, man was hacking to bits the shield that protected arable lands as far as the Volga and beyond from sukhovei or dry wind, cause of drought and famine, Russia's scourge since time immemorial. It was palpable idiocy to destroy the only factor that mitigated the harsh, arid climate of this desert region, and yet it was committed with a great song and dance about Soviet man, builder of communism, transforming nature.

Now we come to the $64 billion question: Why was it done? Why was the folly committed despite the obvious danger to the wheat fields in Russia proper, in Stavropol and KrasnodarTerritories, Astrakhan and Saratov Regions that provided bread for all of Russia when the crops were not killed by the dry, very dry wind from Central Asia carrying grains of sand all the way across the Caspian Sea? Why would anyone jeopardize the health of Southern Russia's wheat fields?

Mr. Finn, as countless Western authors before him, has the answer pat: "The disaster began almost half a century ago because Soviet central planners in Moscow wanted cotton, lots of it. In the early 1960s, bureaucrats sitting 2,000 miles from the Aral Sea ordered that the amount of water diverted from the sea's two feeding rivers be dramatically increased to drive new production of that crop."

Whenever the topic of the Aral Sea disaster comes up in absolutely all Western writings I have come across, the same fable is trotted out: big, bad, positively perfidious Soviet planners sitting 2,000 miles away want cotton they decree the building of dams the Aral Sea dries up poor Central Asians suffer horribly UNO, World Bank, etc. come with their money the consequences of the "Soviet planners' folly" are put right, and a lead irrigation engineer at the World Bank quoted by Finn, rejoices: "We have shown that even the worst environmental disaster can be reversed, somewhat." (Note the "somewhat" which means exactly what I said: robbing Karakalpak to pay Kazakh.)

To accept this fable without digging up the real facts behind the disaster is either shoddy journalism or a dirty kick in permanently raging anti-Russian propaganda warfare: when in doubt, blame everything on Moscow.

I suggest we consider at least three questions; (1) Who were those awful Soviet planners whose folly started the disaster? (2) Why-why-why did they commit that folly? (3) How were those beautiful plans for putting water resources to good use carried out on the ground?

Point 1: Who? The curious thing about those "Soviet planners" in Western accounts is that they are nameless, faceless, anonymous monsters. Peter Finn is simply following in the footsteps of such illustrious personages as Mr. Khalid Malik, UN representative in Tashkent who, in his opening speech at a UN conference in Nukus, capital of Karakalpakia, some 12 years ago, said that "the people of the region were paying the price for past development policies" no names, just a hint. Others spoke more definitely of "wanton misuse of scarce water resources by Soviet planners." Peter Finn just goes a step further and says that the planners, still nameless, were based in Moscow, "2,000 miles from the Aral Sea."

This anonymity is a bit puzzling, since power in Soviet times was highly centralized and thus not hard to identify. Everybody knows that real, absolute power in the Soviet Union lay in the hands of a dozen or so Politburo members; well, maybe two dozen, if you count Politburo "candidates" on a lower rung. So now we can have some names, at last.

When the decision to start those irrigation projects in Central Asia were made, Kazakhstan was ruled by Comrade Kunayev, first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (for which read viceroy or khan or shah, whichever you prefer), and Uzbekistan, by Comrade Rashidov, same titles. Now mark this: both these gentlemen were full members of the Brezhnevite Politburo with a deciding vote. Were they dragged into the irrigation "folly" kicking and screaming by their colleagues on the Politburo? Not so but contrariwise: they were body and soul, actually the motive force, behind the project and for a very good reason (see Point 2).

Some more names. In Comrade Kunayev's reign, the prime minister of Kazakhstan was none other than Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current and apparently perennial president of that republic. The bio of Mr. Islam Karimov, current and also apparently perennial president of Uzbekistan and hero of what has come to be termed the "Andijan massacre," is an even more interesting read than Nazarbayev's: esteemed President Karimov spent twenty years, 1966-1986, in Uzbekistan's Gosplan or State Planning Committee, working his way right up to the very top of that worthy organization to become its chairman in 1986, after a brief spell as the republic's finance minister. Talk of those Soviet planners sitting 2,000 miles away. Comrade Karimov sat and did all his planning right there in Tashkent very enthusiastically.

Point 2: Why? Mr. Finn, that lover of readymade answers, has his lines pat here, too: "Soviet central planners in Moscow wanted cotton, lots of it." Look, man, "Soviet central planners in Moscow" have been gone these 17 years, and still Uzbekistan remains the world's fourth largest producer of cotton and second largest exporter of it. Why doesn't Islam Karimov see reason at last? Why doesn't he stop producing cotton? Why doesn't he let Amu Darya's waters run freely to the Aral Sea and maybe bring it back to its former glory in say, a hundred years or so?

The answer is clear to anyone without Cold War blinkers. Kunayev, Rashidov, Nazarbayev, Karimov, all the big boys of Central Asia, including of course the rulers of Turkmenistan, had one big, overriding concern: a whopping population explosion on their hands. Since the 1920s, what is usually described as Communist tyranny had brought to these parts certain things that had been at ground zero level before: free universal education (which produced a nearly 100 percent literacy, still in evidence) and a (more or less) modern healthcare system where none had existed before. Diseases like the plague, cholera, malaria and the like, which used to decimate populations, were brought under control, regular famines were a thing of the past and the Muslim women of the area continued to produce children on the a-kid-a-year plan. Still do for that matter. You can look up the statistics in Wikipedia. All I can say from my contacts with the local men is, they averaged some seven to ten kids, and that from a single wife, when Allah in His infinite wisdom entitled them to four. Under careful questioning I had to own that I had sired just one daughter that I knew of, and even that one lived in Stockholm. Howls of laughter. Best joke of the year.

Now, I hear you say "family planning." Of course that would be, or would have been, the answer. Only that brings back certain memories, too. In 1989, at the First Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, a certain rationally thinking gentleman name of Filshin asked a puzzled question: "Why don't the authorities of Central Asian republics do something in the way of introducing family planning, given the trouble they are having with unemployment, and other unpleasantness?" You should have seen the fury that mild question unleashed among the collected femininity from Central Asia. None other than the Chairperson of the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan, a corpulent mother of I don't know how many, backed by her kerchief-wearing cohorts, furiously denounced poor Filshin for insulting the motherhood of Uzbekistan blah-blah-blah, though I for one could not for the life of me see where the insult lay. Filshin apologized like mad for he did not exactly know what, the collective motherhood was avenged and they still continue to multiply exceedingly.

That was and is the root of all evil there, if evil that is. Those millions, producing other millions, had to be given jobs, and the only jobs that most peasants 90 plus percent of the population had traditionally done for centuries, and could be realistically trained in, were in agriculture. Some industries were being developed, like production of gas, oil, gold, and even aircraft construction at a plant in Tashkent (naturally come to rack and ruin in the years of independence), but these were not enough to absorb the population. Coupled with antediluvian water management, the birth rate factor made the environmental disaster virtually inevitable.

Point 3: How? We have now come to the third all-important question: What did the implementation of planners' plans, whether hatched in Moscow or locally, look like on the ground? The brief answer is: Appalling.

The combination of powerful modern machinery like bulldozers, dredgers etc. with sloth, ignorance, and millennia-old attitudes (the more water, the better) quickly led to salinization of vast tracts of land: with too much irrigation, salty subsoil waters rose to the surface, producing an artistic effect not unlike the lunar landscape. The more cotton and other stuff was grown, the more liberally deadly pesticides, herbicides and defoliants (some of them forbidden the world over) were used, far out of proportion with actual need. As these accumulated, the water of the two great rivers became a lethal mix affecting the health of some 30 million people.

In winter, this water is collected in huge reservoirs, where vast quantities of it are wasted through evaporation and filtration, the soil being sandy. The wastage continues in the canals and aryks or ditches that take the water to the fields. This part of the process is done by peasants wielding ketmens or mattocks, just as thousands of years ago none of your Israel-type electronically computed drop-by-drop watering of each individual plant.

Finally, residual water, that is, water not used up in irrigation, is not directed back to the river and ultimately to the sea but dumped in any handy depression, increasing soil salinity and contributing to the overall wastage. Seen from the air, former Soviet Central Asia looks like a land of a million lakes which are actually Dead Seas, small and big; some very big, like Arnasai or Sary Kamysh these at least are good for fabulous fishing.

Now, there are about four scenarios for getting out of this, the world's worst manmade environmental disaster: (a) the impossible, (b) the idiotic, (c) the improbable, (d) the tragicomically realistic. Let us consider them in that order.

Scenario 1. As hinted above, to undo the mischief done by the wicked "Soviet planners," it is enough to open the sluice gates of the countless water reservoirs. Let the water flow to the Aral Sea, not the fields, the villages, and the cities. In a while (who knows when?) the Aral would be back where it had been before the "wanton misuse" started. Naturally, immediate economic collapse of all the Central Asian states would ensue, millions of people would go without food or jobs or any prospects of getting them. The environment simply cannot sustain a population of that size.

As for the region quickly becoming yet another "Asian tiger" la Taiwan or South Korea, with millions busily putting together competitive computers and other technological devices well, to steal a phrase from Jeeves, the contingency is fairly remote to anyone acquainted with the populace. Which certainly throws a somewhat different light on the efforts of those wicked Soviet planners.

Scenario 2 was actually proposed at the Nukus conference I referred to above by Uzbek president Islam Karimov: revive the old Soviet plan for saving Central Asia by diverting the great north-flowing Siberian rivers the Ob, the Irtysh and possibly the Yenisei southward, towards the Aral. As I recall, the speech was received with consternation by the assembled environmentalists.

In my view, Mr. Karimov knew that he was talking through his tyubeteika: the project was scrapped in 1986 primarily for financial reasons. Since then, money had not become more plentiful, putting it mildly. Additionally he would now have to undo a few political knots to get all the countries involved (notably, Russia) to cooperate. Should he overcome these hurdles, the environmentalists of the world would unite to remind him that a reduction in the Siberian rivers' runoff by as little as two or three percent would gravely affect the Arctic Ocean's salinity. Salinity would increase, and salty water doesn't freeze, you know. The Arctic ice cap would melt even faster than it is doing now, with global warming upon us, with certain interesting consequences for the Netherlands, Bangladesh and other low-lying countries.

But I was sure Mr. Karimov was not as big an ass as he made out to be: he was aware of all this, and he simply wanted to point an accusing finger at some external agent on whom to blame his people's plight there's big bad Russia sitting on her vast water resources, too greedy to share them. Well, he was not the first politician to try this not very intelligent but effective trick. Let him.

Scenario 3. That UN conference's formula was as pious as it was unrealistic: "sustainable development and providing clean water and healthcare to a rapidly growing population." Beautiful blueprints were drawn for improving (or rather starting) family planning projects (shades of Comrade Filshin!), former seabed afforestation, soil desalination, water-saving irrigation techniques, etc. etc. More than ten years has passed what have all those wonderful formulas for sustainable development led to? Google "Aral Sea" on the Net, and you will find some truly revealing headlines, like "WITH ARAL SEA FACING EXTINCTION, CENTRAL ASIAN LEADERS FALL BACK ON WORDS RATHER THAN ACTION." Plus as many horror stories about the plight of the local population as you can stomach.

Which leaves us with

Scenario 4. Things will go on pretty much as they have until now from bad to worse. Whatever money the UN, the EBRD, the EC or any other alphabetical organization should care to invest in reversing the Aral's shrinkage will be spent on robbing some folks to provide a little water for some others, as hinted above; on further "key conferences," research into what is plainer than the noses on the researchers' faces, trips by highly placed Central Asia officials to study those beautiful irrigation projects in Israel and other nice countries, and similar pleasant pursuits. The money allotted for family planning will go a long way towards improving the living standards of the planners of family planning, while those 99 percent of anemic Karakalpak women will go on bearing, year in year out, anemic children who will then proceed to die at a rate four times higher than the average for the former Soviet Union not a terribly high standard, to start with.

The situation is not without a hope, though not for the Aral Sea, at least. As more and more arable land becomes salt-ridden, less and less water will be needed for irrigation: there will be little to irrigate. I have particularly high hopes for the Karakum Canal, formerly named after Lenin and now, I suspect, after the late unlamented Saparmurad Niyazov, because everything else is in Turkmenstan, and why should the canal be an exception? The canal siphons off a great portion of the Amu Darya flow, and when it silts up as it inevitably will, given the vast amounts of sediment carried by the river's waters, probably the muddiest in the world the Aral will get a portion of that annual 50 cubic km runoff back. This will not revive sturgeon and other fishy assets of Karakalpakia and the Khorezm Oasis, but will at least dilute somewhat the toxic concoction that goes by the name of Amu Darya water.

Then there are all those engineers and skilled machine operators who, unwilling to spoil the sport of freshly acquired national independence and sovereignty, have regretfully migrated north two million of them from Uzbekistan alone. Machines have a habit of breaking down even in skilled hands, and without them, the unskilled hands armed with ketmens are less likely to inflict damage on the environment, which may still restore itself, if only partially, to its former splendor only who will be left around to enjoy it?

Not to end on this depressing note, I would heartily recommend anyone interested in the subject to read my own recently published book, Solo on the Aral, printed by Evrasia+ Publishers. Moscow, 2007. In Russian. 528 pp. With pictures.