Cotton Kills
May 21, 2009 10:30 AM   Subscribe

NASA recently released a series of photographs documenting the loss of the Aral Sea over the past ten years. The Aral Sea could be the poster child for human damage to the ecosystem. In a mere four decades, it has gone from a surface area of 68000 km^2 to less that a quarter of that, with a 10x drop in water volume. As its Wikipedia article points out, this is the equivalent of completely draining two of the five Great Lakes.

Much of the water has been lost to making Uzbekistan the fifth largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton, a notoriously water-hungry crop. Other disasters inflicted on the sea include destruction of the fishing economy, loss of wildlife, industrial waste, pesticide and fertilizer pollution, enormous dust storms, and a bioweapons lab.

In the last few years, the water level in the north has risen slightly due to a rescue effort, but it is only a partial success in a plan with a limited scope.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (14 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

The progress just since 2000 to 2009 is incredible. I just got really thirsty for someone.
posted by localhuman at 10:40 AM on May 21, 2009

The Aral Sea could be the poster child for human damage to the ecosystem.

Possible slogan: "Only You Can Increase Aral Retention"
posted by mattdidthat at 10:43 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I just got really thirsty for someone.
The Aral Sea is both saltwater and absurdly polluted.
posted by Flunkie at 10:46 AM on May 21, 2009

As its Wikipedia article points out, this is the equivalent of completely draining two of the five Great Lakes.

<wingnut>Yeah, but it's the two smallest lakes.</wingnut>
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 10:47 AM on May 21, 2009

Is it possible to boycott produce which damages the Aral Sea?
posted by Sova at 10:51 AM on May 21, 2009

Looks like the current Google Maps image of the sea is from 2000.
posted by MtDewd at 11:01 AM on May 21, 2009

I just got really thirsty for someone.
I really only meant this in a metaphorical sense. Er, maybe I'm dumb. Anyways don't mind that. Look at some pretty pictures of the Aral sea on flickr!
posted by localhuman at 11:02 AM on May 21, 2009

posted by Sova Is it possible to boycott produce which damages the Aral Sea?

When you find out, please let us know so we can begin the boycotts of whatever caused the loss of Tulare Lake and Lake Lahontan.
posted by mattdidthat at 11:06 AM on May 21, 2009

I worked in Central Asia on a joint USAID/UN development project a few years back aimed specifically at increasing the capacity for local governments to manage their water resources along the water leading to the Aral (primarily the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers). We were implementing management technologies used successfully in water-poor areas of the US and elsewhere around the world to keep track of water supplies in reservoirs and flowing past checkpoints. In their day, the Soviets actually put in some remarkable water accounting checkpoints along the route of those rivers (even if management of water resources was low on their list of priorities).

But it wasn't the rivers that were the sticking point. There was sufficient water to at least maintain the Aral Sea at its then-current level, and with better management, who knows? There might even have been the ability to grow the sea, in time.

However, problems in several areas were such that most of work was for nothing and, unfortunately, it was pretty obvious that this was the case. First, the fact that they were using crops with such remarkable water needs was problematic, but there was no move by any of the agencies I saw or worked with to try and develop alternate cash crops for the people in the area. Since the Aral Sea was the end of the line, a farmer who stopped growing cotton for the purposes of water conservation would never really see any benefit. They needed a more immediate benefit.

Second, the irrigation systems in place were woefully inadequate. I recall open-air cement troughs running along the sides of roads in the countryside, in which water flowed out from the Amu Darya to farms further from the river. When flow was high, water would spill over the edge and be wasted. Furthermore, sometimes the troughs would be broken, intentionally or not, and water would simply gush out at the wrong delivery point. The aid agencies weren't sinking money into fixing anything outside of the main rivers, but all the water wastage was on the irrigation lines outside the rivers!

Finally, the water management agencies in the area were even then strapped for money and still run by ex-Soviet bureaucrats. I remember visiting a regional water agency and all the lights in the building were turned off to conserve power. The hallways were pitch black. We were there to discuss management of irrigation resources and some plans for off-river water accounting (basically, a first step towards the previous problem, above) and by the end of the discussion it was clear that we were going to get nowhere. The man in charge of the regional agency had a few cousins, far off-river, who ran cotton farms. We weren't sure why this was a sticking point until later discussions with a man from the UN who had tried a similar strategy. Off-river water accounting was problematic because it would reveal all the nepotism and cronyism in the ways that water was being routed away from the river.

Add all of this together, and then multiply by five countries that want no part of working with each other, some of whom have access to the initial snowmelt that creates the Amu and Syr Darya, and some of whom must rely on water getting downstream. If you wonder why western states in the US are such sticklers on rainwater harvesters and water rights, it's because they owe water to downstream states. In this way, states on the Rockies don't hoard the water. There were simply too many problems to getting anything similar working in Central Asia, and we were there nearly a decade ago when their economies were doing relatively OK.

So you can go ahead and try boycotting some folks to see if it makes a difference, but in this jaded soul's opinion, it will be completely ineffective. The entrenched powers-that-be, particularly farther upstream, have no interest in "wasting" water by allowing it to flow to the Aral Sea. The farmers that live in rural areas are barely making ends meet at the moment and have been offered no other options. The infrastructure is crumbling and simply unable to provide the sort of management and accounting necessary to track where water is being diverted, wasted, hoarded, and spilled. It will require billions and billions of dollars to do anything and most of that will probably go straight in the pockets of the people in charge.

I lost my optimism about achieving anything productive for the Aral a while ago. No one who lives in the region and relies on the water heading to the Aral can afford to make – or necessarily even wants to make – the sort of changes that would allow the Aral to regrow. If any changes are going to be made, they will have to come hand-in-hand with massive democratic and economic reforms. Central Asia can be a beautiful, beautiful place, and for its peoples' sakes, I hope changes do occur. I'm not holding my breath, though.
posted by barnacles at 11:32 AM on May 21, 2009 [26 favorites]

even better, who knows what's living on Vozrozhdeniya Island... and what can it do once it can get carried on land mammals like rats.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:51 AM on May 21, 2009

A little something for Great Lakes residents to remember as the 2010 census transfers more congressional seats from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. You think it's too far to move the water from hither to yon? HA HA HA HA move aside, son, we're diggin' us a big-ass canal.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:15 PM on May 21, 2009

If you're a subscriber, check out the Harper's Magazine article on this.
posted by Stephen Elliott at 12:23 PM on May 21, 2009

Also, Chasing The Sea, by Tom Bissell. I love this book.
posted by Stephen Elliott at 12:24 PM on May 21, 2009

The same thing is happening in North America, folks. It's called the Ogallala Aquifer. It is the primary source of water for huge part of the Great Plains. It will be bone dry within most of our lifetimes.It will not initially be as evident as the satellite shots of the Aral Sea, what with being entirely underground. But I would guess American will have a new desert by the year 2050.

I hope they're not growing anything real important there. I suggest you avoid purchasing any Nebraskan farms.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2009

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