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Forests Rising at Bottom of Aral Sea

Forests Rising at Bottom of Aral Sea

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Forests Rising at Bottom of Aral Sea
Forests Rising at Bottom of Aral Sea

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Published by: adbwaterforall on Dec 27, 2012
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Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Uzbekistan: Farmers, Scientists Push for Aral-Friendly Cotton Variety
July 2006

Desertification and environmental degradation have been shrinking the Aral Sea for the last 50 years. Restoring it is close to impossible, and planting forests on the dried up seabed, according to scientists, is the only way stop its complete dry up. Will the Aral Sea still win this losing battle? FROM A SEA TO A DESERT TO OASES

BEFORE THE SEA BECAME THIRSTY Situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral was once the world’s fourth largest inland sea. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers used to feed the Aral Sea until their waters were diverted to irrigation, mainly of cotton, which was the former Soviet Union’s primary produce. In the 1960s, nearly 58 billion cubic meters of water flowed from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers into the Aral each year. But it has been receiving very little water since 1986 due to increasing irrigation off take. It also loses 30 to 35 billion cubic meters a year to evaporation. Today, the Aral’s volume of water has fallen by 90 percent and its surface area has shrunk by 73 percent. It also has separated into two lakes—the Big Aral and the Small Aral. Nearly 50,000 square kilometers of the sea have dried up, and a new desert called Aralkum is now in its place. Winds blow about 75 million tons of dust, sand and salt from the Aralkum, which settles on land within a 1,000-kilometer radius. Aggravating the situation is the pollution from the now uninhabited Vozrozhdeniye island, a former biological weapons test site. Forty years ago, the project site where workers are now planting forests was filled with water more than 20 meters deep. Today, one needs to drive 70 kilometers of scorched sand strewn with seashells to get there.

Scientists, government officials, and workers in Uzbekistan have so far planted 27,000 hectares of land with shrubs, bushes and fodder plants, including the black saxaul, or the Haloxylon aphyllum—which can survive a hostile environment. The land, after all, used to be part of the Aral seabed. Now, it’s part of the desert. A joint project of the German Society for Technical Cooperation and the Vodproekt Association of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Management, the greening of the Aral Sea began in 2000 and continues until today. Workers are busy building oases that can ease erosion and improve the environment. The new shrubs, bushes, and plants capture rain and snow that are crucial in the drought-affected Aral region, whose current annual precipitation averages only about 75 millimeters. The plants’ roots, which grow parallel to the ground and fasten to the mixture of sand, dust and salt, prevent further erosion, while the plant itself act as windbreakers, decreasing wind velocity by 60 to 70 percent. In the Aral region, blowing salt and dust are among the main causes of cancer, respiratory diseases, intestinal disorders, and infections. Zinovy Novitsky, the project’s scientific adviser, said, “Manmade desertification happens and people suffer from it.” Working on the Aral Sea for 20 years, he defended his doctoral thesis on the scientific methods of growing forests on the dried up sea bottoms. The only way to combat desertification, he adds, is to create forests since “forests create oxygen, kill microbes, and improve the climate and landscape.”

HAZARDS OF GROWING TREES IN THE SEA The black saxaul is grown from seedlings produced in tree nurseries. Two nurseries with a total area of 50 hectares have been laid out this year. Some seedlings are a pink color as chlorophyll has been destroyed by the soil’s high salt content, says Novitsky. These seedlings, however, are better acclimatized to what used to be the bottom of the Aral Sea. Some areas are also unfit for planting because the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers carried chemicals that kill plants and insects in large quantities. These areas still contain unsafe amounts of the chemicals. The workers live in a camp, 41 kilometers away from the Aral’s former shore, where the sea’s depth once reached 17 meters. They earn US$70 to 80 a month. “The living conditions here are normal but I’d like them to be better,” said Ruslan Bekmurzaev, a 21 year-old worker from a village in Karakalpakstan. Bekmurzaev works 22 days a month on the project site and spends the rest at home with his parents, sister, and two brothers. He has been working for the project for three years and now has eye problems. “It is difficult to work on the site because blowing sand gets into my eyes,” he says. “I have to see an eye doctor every two months.” But he adds, “We want to improve the ecology of the region. I live near the Aral and I must work here.”

THE FORESTING CONTINUES Project leader Hans Wilps said the planting project is much cheaper than other possible solutions. The costs for forestation in Uzbekistan—US$150 to 200 per hectare—is substantially below the worldwide average of US$500 to 700 per hectare. Funding for the project came from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Novitsky estimates that about 600,000 hectares in the dry Aral region should be covered with forests, but adds it would be difficult to plant such a large area. Workers can only plant 250,000 to 300,000 hectares over 10 years, and it would be another five or six years before the shrubs start producing seeds that would be spread by the wind. Vadim Antonov, technical director of the Vodproekt Association says “It is impossible to restore the Aral, but it is necessary to make the area healthier.”

_______________________________ Based on the article of Marina Kozlova, Asia Water Wire journalist The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this paper and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. Terminology used may not necessarily be consistent with ADB official terms.

*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in July 2006: http://www.adb.org/water/actions/uzb/forests-rising.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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