Whatever the extraordinary progress of the last century, it was also an era in which the reckless exploitation of natural resources and casual damage to the environment took place at an unprecedented speed and scale. Man’s deliberate and accidental actions have altered our planet in ways which we are only now beginning to fully comprehend.
Given this background, it is an indication of the scale of the catastrophe that the destruction of the Aral Sea is widely viewed as one of the worst ecological disasters in history. What was one of the biggest lakes in the world shrank inside two generations to a tenth of its former size as the river water that replenished it was diverted for Soviet irrigation projects.
As the water disappeared so did the livelihood of countless communities around its shores. What little water was left became increasingly more saline and polluted, killing off its unique wildlife and the fishing industry which relied on it.
The damage goes far wider than once thriving ports now many kilometres from the shore. Contaminated dust from the dry lake bed is blown over hundreds of miles causing major health problems where it lands. Even the climate, denied the moderating effect of such a large body of water, has become harsher.
Stopping and, if possible, reversing this environmental disaster was always going to be difficult. But it was made far more challenging as the break-up of the Soviet Union left five newly independent countries – each with their own interests and priorities – directly involved in tackling this disaster.
Despite the obstacles still to be overcome, there has been significant progress. The Aral Sea Basin Programme has brought Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan together to find answers to this disaster. There is now high-level commitment and co-operation. The UN and other global institutions are backing these efforts, in which Kazakhstan, from the start, has taken the lead.
We have seen, too, remarkable improvements on the ground. The decision to build the Kokaral dam, completed in 2005 with the support of the World Bank, and to improve irrigation systems to stop water wastage means the northern section of the sea is no longer shrinking but expanding. Faster than expected, the ecological damage in this section of the lake has been reversed. It shows that nature can recover if it is given a helping hand.
While this is hugely encouraging, it would be a colossal – perhaps impossible – task to restore the Aral Sea as a whole to its former size and glory. What is needed is collective action to prevent any more of the lake from drying out, to help it recover wherever possible and to support the communities affected to find new livelihoods and futures. It is these goals which must be at the heart of an improved regional and global effort.
But the tragedy of the Aral Sea is also a stark reminder that we need to be far more careful in how we use natural resources, particularly those already under severe pressure like water. This is difficult enough to achieve within countries, but when rivers cross national borders, as is often the case, it becomes even more complex.
There is an urgent need for agreed rules and better international cooperation on how water resources are shared in a sustainable and fair way. It is why the meeting of parties to the Helsinki Convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary rivers and lakes, which takes place in Astana in October, is important. It is the first time it has taken place outside Europe and is a measure of the Kazakhstan’s high profile on the subject.
What has happened in the Aral Basin – and the difficulty of reversing the damage caused – should also reflect more broadly on the choices we are making and the need to act before we reach the point of no return. As much of the world endures extreme weather – with record temperatures and water shortages – this summer, it is a timely reminder of how man’s activity can alter our environment, how quickly change can come and the terrible damage it causes.