Saturday, February 11, 2012

Water Scarcity in Central Asia

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Kazakhstan.  The former capitol, Almaty, is lush—a place almost as gorgeous as Kyrgyzstan to the south.  But in the southwest of Kazakhstan the Aral Sea shimmers in a dry valley, and barely at that.  In the 1960s, when the USSR was in full bore, the sea provided much needed water to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  The waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya (the rivers that fed the sea) were diverted for irrigation.  Since 1960, irrigated land has increased 100 percent, the population in the Aral Sea region by 140 percent, and the volume of the sea has decreased by 66 percent.
The Aral Sea stands out as one of the world's worst man-made "natural" disasters—rivaling Chernobyl, given that the population around the sea has increased.  Today, with the USSR left only in history books, a bittersweet sense of nostalgia in the flailing nations it once propped up, and the spirit of the Duma, Central Asia is left with unrepairable wreckage. And worse yet, there's oil to be had under the ever drying sea bed—a spill could cause even greater misfortune.
The Aral Sea isn't all lost cause, as some report, though it may appear so by first glance at the former ships rusting along the shore, and surfacing like rising dead as the water drops.  Hulled and graffiti'd the trawlers are a constant reminder of the disaster still taking place, but one that can be remedied with political action and smart water policies.  So far, none have taken, or even been raised, by the politically adept and able.  Worse still, nearby lake Balkash may face a similar fate, and likely won't get attention until it too hosts rusting fishing boats.
I spent a day visiting with a group of residents, most were teens and knew the "lake-front" as a place to drink or break bottles.  No one I spoke with thought of the dry sea as a disaster, just life.  What can be done?  The sea will dry, as it has.
I spent the afternoon taking photos—which went to promote a conference on Water Scarcity and
Water Rights in Asia.  They're still some of my favorite photos, probably because there is such a powerful—if not morbid—story behind them.
I'm looking forward to visiting the Negev and, with luck, we'll be able to use our images and information to promote new water policies in Israel before resignation sinks in.  Of course, not all the residents near the Aral Sea were worse off.  Camels don't need much, and the one pictured above seemed perfectly content.


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