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Cotton Strangles the Aral Sea

Are water shortages in Asia temporary or the result of poor environmental policies?

November 25, 2005

Are water shortages in Asia temporary or the result of poor environmental policies?

From the air, canals leading away from the Amu Darya or the Oxus River glistened through the haze like fat silver ribbons woven through the dun grid of cultivated land.

For more than half a century now, they have drained off the lifeblood of Central Asia to irrigate fields of cotton, the cash crop so loved by the region's rulers.

But irrigating the steppe is like substance abuse — the more water the farms use, the more they need, because the weight of the water brings up ground salts deep in the prehistorical era when the whole of Central Asia was a great sea.

Beside the canals, the sun glared back from mirror-like sheets of water where collective farm managers had flooded fields to wash these salt and agricultural chemicals out of the soil.

Other canals, the collector channels, drew the used water off into vast dead lakes in the desert known as sinks. From here the water slowly evaporates, leaving acrid bowls of salt and dust behind.

In the past four decades, the Aral Sea, the former fourth-largest inland body of water in the world, has shrunk to half its surface area — and one-third its volume.

Soviet and independent Uzbekistan's addiction to revenues from the cotton crop is not the only demand on the Aral's tributary waters.

Kazakh farmers drain water from another river flowing to the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya. Turkmenistan siphons Amu Darya river water into the Karakum canal.

Further upstream, Tajikistan has a hungry cotton habit to feed as well. The Soviet Union dug a total of 20,000 miles of canals, raised 45 dams and laid out 80 reservoirs to service its cotton agro-business.

Cotton is no joke in Uzbekistan, the world's fifth-biggest producer. Cotton has been cultivated here since antiquity It makes up two-thirds of the country's gross output and employs 40% of the population. Uzbeks pick four million tons of raw cotton a year, which translates to about 1.25 billion tons of ginned fiber for textiles.

Four-fifths of that is sold abroad for about $1.5 billion, netting between one-third and one-half of Uzbekistan's foreign currency income every year. Indeed, Uzbek cotton exports are usually second only to those of the United States.

The Uzbek product however trades at a discount to world norms because it has not yet over come a reputation for shipping gritty, short-fiber, poor quality cotton. Cheating on the cotton crop — not to mention on the environment — goes back a long way.

More than half the irrigated land is already saline and even more could be unusable in a few decades as bedrock salts leach up from below.

The city of Tashkent itself uses three or four times as much water per head of population than Western cities because of profligacy and leaky taps.

And yes, there is enough water to go around. But nobody has the willpower or resources to change water usage and the rock bottom pricing that encourages waste.

Russian officials perpetuate the exploitative mentality at regional conferences where they talk of selling water — and increasing their influence — by diverting part of the River Ob in Siberia to Central Asia.

The existing water suppliers, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, are too weak to change usage patterns, even though storing water in dams for their wasteful neighbors for use in summer means that their own citizens lack power in winter.

The water consumers — Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — have made clear they will not pay for water or change their ways. At least one of them has conducted military exercises to simulate the seizing of dams.

Most people seem to have given up on saving the Aral Sea and put their faith in folk legends that it has shrunk and grown back before. Five centuries ago, Prince Babur wrote that during the summer months the waters of the Amu Darya would not even reach Bokhara — let alone Karakalpakstan.

There is a slim chance that they may be right to hope. Nobody yet knows why the level of the even bigger Caspian Sea next door rose two meters from 1978 to 1994 — and then started falling again.