ASTANA – The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The anniversary marks two decades of mixed success in restoring ecological life and prosperity to the sea and its surrounding regions after decades of catastrophic misuse during the Soviet era.The fund, set up by the leaders of Central Asia at the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, brought the plight of the Aral Sea to the global stage. It worked with ecologists from around the world to introduce new clean and safe alternative technologies and establish high standards of environmental protection. The fund has sought to play an important role in fostering international cooperation among the different governments of Central Asia to coordinate and organise the joint management of water resources in the Aral Sea basin.
The Aral Sea used to be one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometres (26,255 square miles), but it has been steadily shrinking for half a century since the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects beginning in the 1960’s.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters. The region has once a prosperous fishing industry but it was totally destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship to the region. The Aral Sea region was also heavily polluted causing serious public health problems. The retreat of the sea also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer.
On March 26, 1993 the five heads of states of Central Asia created the Aral Sea Fund at a summit in Kyzylorda, in the south west of Kazakhstan, and agreed to work together to restore the environment and revive the socio-economic development of the Aral Sea region.
IFAS has played a coordinating role in overcoming the Aral Sea crisis. It has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, UNESCO, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, TACIS and the governments of donor countries including Denmark, Germany, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands, the United States, Switzerland and Sweden.
From 1995 to 2010, the fund implemented two Aral Sea Basin Programmes: ASBP-1 and ASBP-2. These programmes, carried out with the support of the government of Kazakhstan, –managed the water resources of the Aral Sea, rehabilitated zones of ecological disaster and provided clean drinking water. They improved the health levels of the inhabitants of the region, and reduced poverty and unemployment.
“In Kazakhstan’s region of the Aral Sea, we carried out a major project to regulate the bed of the Syr-Darya River and to preserve the northern part of the sea at a cost of $85.8 million. We also succeeded in raising the water level in the sea from 39.90 metres (139.9 feet) to 42 metres (137.8 feet),” IFAS Director Medet Ospanov said.
IFAS built or repaired 195 km (121 miles) of water mains built and repaired in the Aral Sea region in its 2002-2010 programme to improve the supply of drinking water. It constructed the Aral-Sarybulak, Zhidelinsk, and Kentau-Turkestan major water pipelines. It rebuilt the Aral-Sarybulak group water line by laying 22 km (13.67 miles) of new cast iron pipes.
Working with the State Programme for Development of Education in Kazakhstan, the fund built 21 educational facilities in the region from 2005 to 2011. And working with Kazakhstan’s State Programme of Public Health Reform and Development, it built 16 healthcare facilities in the region from 2004 to 2008.
In April 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the Aral Sea region. In meetings with the leaders of the Aral states, he paid special attention to the problems of safety and ecology of the region. Ban has supported IFAS in its efforts to boost the social and economic development of all the countries of Central Asia and he continues to provide extensive assistance to the region through UN agencies.
The fund received another boost at a special summit of the five leaders of the Central Asian nations dedicated to it held in Almaty in April 2009. In May 2012, the board of IFAS approved a new ASBP-3 action programme for 2011 to2015.
An international conference on “Ecology of the Aral Sea: Sustainable Development and International Cooperation” was held in Dashoguz, Turkmenistan on March 27-28.
IFAS Chairman Sagit Ibatullin hosted the conference which included delegations from all five Central Asian nations, UNDP, UNEP, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the European Union and the UN Economic Commission for Europe.
The agenda included regional environmental policy, the changing ecology of the sea, halting the spread of deserts in the region, protecting its biodiversity, reforesting it and sustaining its water resources.
“The main goal of the conference was to draw international attention to the state of the ecosystem of the Aral Sea. It also developed new approaches to improve the current situation,” Ospanov said.