Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Threats to the Aral Basin

Irrigation/Drainage canals in the delta

Alongside the Amu Darya are a dense series of irrigation and drainage ditches which are visible in the adjacent photo, The waterways clearly visible due to the reflection of sunlight off the surface of the water. The Amu Darya flows to the northwest from the bottom left hand corner of this photograph to the top providing life-giving water to crops on the Amu Darya Delta (in dark green). It originates many hundreds of kilometers to the southeast in the more temperate Pamir Mountains, flowing across the arid Turanian plain to eventually run into drainage channels that flow eventually into the Aral Seas.

The Amu Darya before entering the Aral Sea forms a vast delta, which dominates these images.

Water is utilized intensively in the delta to irrigate cotton and other crops such as rice. The delta continue to lose arable land to soil salinisation as a result of rising groundwater levels that accompany the intensive crop irrigation.

Further as a consequence of the diversion of vast quantities of freshwater from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for irrigation the water volume of the Aral Sea has dropped by more than 90% in the last 50 years.

Aral Basin

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya combined flow is equal the Nile and accounts for some 90 percent of water use in Central Asia. Long-term average flow is the Amu Darya is 79 cubic km / year and 37 cubic km / year in the Syr Darya.

Water flowing in the two rivers comes almost entirely from glaciers in the Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan, which, standing above the surrounding arid plain, collect atmospheric moisture which otherwise would probably have escaped somewhere else. Without its mountain water sources, the rivers would contain little water because it rarely rains in the lowlands that characterize most of the river.

Whilst water inputs (general precipitation and glacial meltwater) come from near the river's source in the mountains of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is the countries downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that most depend on its regular spring and summer water discharges for their agriculture.

Continued Dam Construction - A Looming Problem

Over the last few years, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have increasingly hoarded water in their alpine reservoirs to generate electricity in the winter.


In Tajikistan the Nurek Dam an icon of 1960s Soviet infrastructure ingenuity is at over 300 m the tallest Dam in the world. It located not far from Dushambe the capital of Tajikistan fuels nine hydroelectric turbines producing 3.0 gigwatts, or 40% of Central Asia’s power needs and 98% of Tajikistan’s.

Just up-river from Nurek is another dam project, Rogun, that has been in the works – and then stalled due to major geological problems *1 and then the collapse of the Soviet Union and then the Civil War - for over 30 years.

Rogun Dam Site

Despite widespread opposition by its neighbours the Tajik Government has started raising 1.4 billion dollars from Tajik citizens* 2 to complete the dam. It is however estimated that for the project to be delivered in full they would need to spend something like double that amount. As Tajikistan’s whole GDP is less than 2 billion a year the project will likely require significant overseas funding if it is ever to be completed.


1. Soviet Geologists worried that the base of the dam is very fragile and water seepage undermining the base was a very real possibility, some believed that even a small earthquake could cause a catasrophe. Should any accidents occur during or after the construction of the Rogun dam, it could flood large areas of arable land as far afield as Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

2. The Tajik government has been seeking to collect funds for the construction of Rogun through the issue of stock (shares) and has made it mandatory for citizens and businesses to purchase them. The stock price ranges 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 somoni ($23 to $1,150) (www.centrasia.ru, December 24, 2009). Citizens who buy shares also will be allowed to turn any funds they have generated outside of the official system (ie. money from the black economy) into legal income.

Nurek Dam

Recently the Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev sent a letter to his Tajik counterpart warning Dushanbe of potential damage by the Roghun power plant to Central Asia's "frail environmental balance. He called on Tajikistan to conduct a thorough review of the Soviet-era project, designed "some 40 years ago” based on "outdated” technical expertise. He pointed out that Tajikistan has to examine the possible impact of the Rogun plant on Amudarya water volumes, "as the very survival of millions of people” depends on it. Further he mentioned that the Rogun power plant is located in an area with a track record of "several major earthquakes of up to magnitude 10.0.”


In Kyrgystan another Soviet era dinosaur is also being restarted. The former Kyrgiz Government  pushed ahead with the Kambarata Dams and hydropower stations projects (I & II) on the Naryn River. Again this dam site is located in a seismic area and is also being developed without proper planning or consideration for the rights of the downstream countries. As it now stands with the country now almost totally broke revealed after the recent turmoil, it has only 16 million Euro in its treasury, so  like Tajikistan it will not be able to complete the construction of the planned dams without external financial and technological support. Given this Kyrgyzstan would be financially much better off using its ample coal resources for their energy needs.


In Afghanistan the US government also has plans to build more dams within the Amu darya catchment. The fertile plains of the Amu Darya basin, account for about 40% of mountainous Afghanistan’s irrigated lands. Whilst it is reasonable for the existing infrastructure to be upgraded, new irrigation projects are not needed. One major driver is that the far north of Afghanistan is one of the very few safe areas that the U.S aid agencies can operate. Further such Irrigation projects as they can generate income and be able to service US loans which of course are tied to providing work for US agribusiness and construction companies. Sadly the cost to others downstream is unlikley to be considered after all in truth the US has little real interest in Central Asia.

New Afghan Dam in the Amu Darya catchment area


The three countries affected downstream are understandably very worried about these new dam projects that will further disrupt the water flow and increase evaporation and therefore considerably effect an already fragile agriculture cycle in the lower aral basin. The loss of vast quantities of water to evapouration and the retention of water for hydroelectricity generation is of particularly concern to Uzbekistan whose western areas (particularly those of Khoresm and Karakalpakstan) and also that of Turkmenistan whose northern areas, are already very water stressed.

They fear that these dams will not only curb water flows down a waterway on which their agriculture largely depends, but that they will only release water in winter, when the there is the greatest need to generate electricity, rather than storing it for the warmer seasons when they need to irrigate their fields.

Central Asia is already facing environmental problems in the aftermath of the Aral "catastrophe.” The inland sea has almost dried up over the past four decades after the Amudarya and other rivers that fed the sea were diverted by Soviet era irrigation projects, by building more dams in the catchment will cause even more problems to millions of people downstream.

The current position of Uzbekistan is that these hydroelectric schemes should not go ahead unless a proper study is carried out into their environmental impacts and human cost throughout the region.

The World Bank, IMF, ADB and others should now follow Russia's lead and not participate in new energy projects in Central Asia unless the concerns of all states in the region are considered.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan need broad based development not expensive dams if they are going to solve their deep rooted structural problems.

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