Environmental Problems of Asian Region have Reached a Critical Point

By Christina Greszta

The OSCE is literally the only regional organization, which includes the most influential countries in the world.

On May 24th -26th  the final part of the 18th OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum took place in Prague. One of key problems that Kazakhstan consider necessary to pay attention to with regard to environmental dimension of OSCE activities is environmental security of the region.

By now (in the beginning of the XXI century) the environmental problems of Asian region have reached critical point, obliging the international community to focus on them. The scope of these problems is very broad, including Semipalatinsk and Caspian region, the Aral Sea, degradation of pastures and arable land in different regions of Central Asia, water pollution from sewage and anti-desertification and drought mitigation measures. These problems affect millions of human lives, and to date, OSCE is literally the only regional organization, which includes the most influential countries in the world, particularly those in Asia, and has an ability to assist within environmental challenges of the new millennium. Thus, the OSCE chairmanship of Kazakhstan in 2010 is an opportunity to make significant steps to solve these problems.

The objectives of agricultural development and overcoming global food crisis –stated in 2008 in the message of President to the people of Kazakhstan has made the condition of agricultural land particularly important. Since the mid-XXth century an extensive development of agriculture along with unsustainable land management technologies used in the USSR have led to loss the of significant part of fertile layer of soil. According to experts’ estimations, the loss of humus amounted to about one-third of the original stock since the beginning of the virgin land cultivation. Wind and water erosion led to soil degradation, resulting in desertification of more than 65% of the territory of Kazakhstan. In addition, mass cultivation was one of the reasons for increased frequency and severity of drought, which subsequently accelerated drying up of lakes and rivers. The regulation of runoff in an arid climate conditions brought to the shortages of water in rivers and lakes in Southern region.

> Central Asia Map

In this regard, the Government has taken steps to facilitate development and the use of caretaking crop production technologies. The level of support of farmers using moisture-retaining technologies is growing annually; there is also a program for sustainable management of rangeland resources supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), etc.
Figure 1: Desiccation of Aral Sea (http://www.wikimedia.org)
Another question is the current and future state of the Aral Sea. Fifty years ago, which is literally "yesterday" within geologic scale, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. Since then the size of the lake decreased by more than four times, and the sea itself was divided into two parts - Large Aral and Small Aral. The reduction rate of water surface area indicates the fact that in the next ten-fifteen years the lake might become extinct. Most experts name an excessive extraction of water from Amu Darya and Syr Darya (the rivers feeding the lake) the main reason for this man-made disaster. Fifty years ago these rivers delivered about 60 cubic kilometers of water per year to the Aral Sea, by now this amount has been reduced to 5 cubic km. Since the 60-s much of the water of these rivers has been used for irrigation of farmland and water supply of Central Asian region. As a result, the channel of rivers now simply does not reach the dying sea.

In this respect Kazakhstan considers necessary to draw attention of the participants of the 18th OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum to Aral Sea issue. OSCE could contribute by providing permanent political dialogue and place for development of unified approaches to solve of this problem.

To date it is hardly possible to restore traditional borders of the Aral Sea. To do that the reduction of water withdrawal from rivers feeding the lake should take place, however four of the five Aral Sea Basin countries (except Kazakhstan) are planning to increase water withdrawal to meet the needs of agricultural development. In 1999 Kazakhstan attempted to restore the Small Aral Sea, located within the country’s territory, by constructing a dam and thus limiting the outflow of water flowing in the direction of the Big Aral. As a result, despite the fact that in April 1999 the dam was breached, there was a rise of the level of the Small Aral Sea, which demonstrated possibility of its restoration. In 2005 Kazakhstan and the World Bank assigned $85 mln. for dam reconstruction. Within the first eight months the level of water in the Small Aral Sea rose by two meters while its area increased by 18%. Today restoration of the number of various fish species and revival of fishing is observed in the basin of  Small Aral. In the near future the borders of Small Aral will reach Aralsk should the environmentalists’ hope come true. It will become possible to proceed with the second phase - restoration of the Big Aral.

The consequences of the Aral Sea disaster are not limited by the irretrievable loss of the natural habitat of the oasis and many species of marine flora and fauna, climate change and loss of the whole Aral Sea fisheries cluster. Over the years the lake has been contaminated with agrochemicals washed from fields. Desiccation of the Aral Sea revealed 50 thousand square km of the bottom of Big Aral with 100 million tons of toxic dust, fine-grained salt dispersed annually not only to the regions near the Aral Sea, but also Central Asia, leaving traces in the Antarctic, Greenland and Europe. Contaminated area is not limited with the surrounding regions - sandstorms generated in the Aral Sea region, have already reached Bukhara, Uzbekistan (500 km. from the Aral Sea).

Environmentalists of Kazakhstan faced similar problem in the lake Koshkar Ata 5 km north of Aktau in Mangistau region. It is an artificial lake, formed from wastewater of Caspian Mining and Metallurgical Plant, which contains all elements of the periodic table, including radioactive waste of uranium enrichment. It is separated from the Caspian Sea by 7 kilometers wide coastal zone. In recent years the level of the lake has been declining - the lake was drying up due to inactivity of plants, supplying it with wastewater. Toxic dust has been generated on dry banks and spread within surrounding regions by wind. At the same time, the initial level of surface water in Koshkar-Ata is above the level of the Caspian Sea, which means that filling it up can potentially cause pollution of the Caspian Sea with toxic and radioactive wastes through the ground water. Thus, reduction of the water level in the lake must be accompanied by conservation of dry banks surface. Currently, groundwater at the tailings site is no longer a threat. The operations on conservation of dry banks are being implemented. Completion of technical reclamation, including water phase using a treatment plant is scheduled for 2015.