| UNESCO promotes unsustainable development in Central Asia |
mirrormundo - 15.02.2007 23:14
In 2000 UNESCO took the initiative to create a 'Water Related Vision for the Aral Sea Basin', in which they outlined the problems in Central Asia and set some goals to achieve before 2025. Apart from being unrealistic, it ignores the problems in the area around the Aral Sea, and therefore UNESCO promotes a non-sustainable development in the region, putting relations between the republics under pressure.
It has been 17 years now since the Soviet Union collapsed and a commonwealth of independent states (CIS) emerged. Starting from scratch, the only thing these countries have in common is 70 years of Soviet history and a whole litany of economical, political and social problems. For five of these countries, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, together known as Central Asia, the international community fears that the economical depression, water and land related problems and ethnic and religious tensions may breed conflicts (like before in 1989 and 1992). Agriculture in the region, which consists mainly of cotton monoculture, is highly dependent on irrigation water from the two main rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya. These rivers flow from the mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the Aral Sea located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The dependence on the water from these two rivers is putting pressure on the relationships between the new republics and is making their economies vulnerable. At the basis of this international concern lies the fact that the intensive and inefficient irrigation, combined with the excessive use of chemicals (such as fertilisers, pesticides and defoliants), have caused one of the most extensive man-made environmental disasters ever.
When the Russian cotton import from America came to a halt during the civil war (1860), tsarist Russia turned to newly conquered Central Asia for the purpose of growing cotton. During Soviet rule the cotton production was extended into desert areas around the Amu Darya and intensified by way of improved irrigation techniques. After 1937 the Soviet Union had become self-sufficient and a main exporter of the 'white gold'. By the time of the 1950-ies there was about 50.000 km2 of land under irrigation, still without affecting the Aral Sea's volume noticeably. This changed when in 1954, under Khrushchev, the Soviets started to dig out the 1360 km long KaraKum canal, making agriculture possible in the desert areas in southern Turkmenistan, but taking 14 km3 of water (a quarter from the total 55 km3) annually from the Amu Darya and, as a result, from the Aral Sea. After that, between 1960 and 1980, the amount of irrigated land increased by only 20%, but the amount of water needed doubled (from 45 to 90 km3) because of diminishing yields and seepage from the irrigation canals. Of the 55 km3 of water which flowed to the sea annually until the 1950-ies, only a salinized and polluted 10% (5 km3) reached the sea by the 1980-ies. In a period of barely 40 years the Aral Sea lost 75% of its volume (in 1960 still 1092 km3), its surface shrank with 40% (lost 31.000 km2) from the size of West Virginia or Lithuania (67.000 km2) to that of the Netherlands, the water level dropped almost 20 meters (from 53 to 34), and salinity increased from 10% to more than 25%. All 23 species of fish living in the sea died, 60.000 people lost their livelihoods and fishermen watched their ships decaying on the dry shore. In some places the coastline receded by 100 km, leaving an area the size of Belgium (30.530 km2) a salty, polluted desert. Storms spread these salts and chemicals over vast areas in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, endangering human health and making agriculture in the immediate area around the Aral Sea (and in the future in the entire basin) increasingly difficult. Also the rivers, which do not only supply water for irrigation, but also serve as a source of drinking water, are salinized and polluted, thereby threatening human health at a key level. Since recently the Amu Darya does not reach the sea, or even Nukus (the capital of Karakalpakstan) anymore, leaving the sea, the crops, the animals and the people without water. Health problems, unemployment and poverty are forcing people to despair or migrate. However, population growth, the economical situation, dependency on cotton, invigorated by a technocratic and deterministic soviet mentality, make it sheer impossible to conceive of a future in which things could be different.
Anticipating a possible escalation of the problems in the future, UNESCO took the initiative to create a Water Related Vision for the Aral Sea Basin (UNESCO; 2000), in which they outlined the problems and set some goals to achieve before the year 2025. This document, as presented at the 2nd World Water Forum (held in The Hague, The Netherlands, May 2000), portrays a prosperous future for the Aral Sea Basin (the whole region of Central Asia) in which there will be more people, more agriculture, more efficient irrigation, more industry, drinking water of a better quality, and a healthier population. Also, in order to save the Aral Sea from becoming a desert, it aims at increasing the amount of water that flows to the sea by 4 times (21 km3, in stead of 5). One type of criticism concerned the realism of the Vision and the achievabillity of its goals. In September 1988, Viktor Duchovny, at that time director of the Central Asian Scientific Research Institute for Irrigation, told the communist Politburo that he would take measures to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation, and give back 21 km3 water annually to the Aral Sea before the year 2005. Now, 12 years later, the UNESCO Vision proposes the same goal, without showing how to achieve that. Another point of criticism was that since the Vision concerns the entire Aral Sea Basin, it ignores the specific problems in the Aral Sea Area, which are a direct result of the development of the areas upstream. These problems, which are environmental, economical and social, are reflected most urgently in the health of the (mainly Karakalpak) population. Cases of infant mortality, birth deformities, aenemia, cancer and respiratory and intestinal diseases are much higher than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Therefore, critics argue, the UNESCO Vision, which focuses on the development of the Aral Sea Basin as a whole, and implicitly considering the area around the Aral Sea a waste dump, allows the continuation of a human tragedy. And also, they claim, it promotes a non-sustainable development in the region, since the effects on environment, economy and human health are spilling over to the entire region, allowing the problems to deepen and spread out, and putting relations between the Central Asian republics under further pressure.
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