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The Kazakh Miracle: Recovery of the North Aral Sea
ASTANA, Kazakhstan, August 1, 2008 (ENS) - Water is returning to the North Aral Sea in Central Asia that had shrunk to a quarter of its former size during the last half of the 20th century. Fish, sea birds and reptiles have begun to repopulate the Aral Sea and surrounding area.

Although the seashore is shared by only two countries, Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south, the Aral Sea Basin is fed by two large rivers, which run through the mountainous countries of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic and through the plains of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

The Aral Sea began to shrink in the 1960s, when massive diversion of water for cotton and rice cultivation under the Soviet Union drained the two rivers that feed the sea, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

The resulting three-quarters decrease in volume of the Northern Aral Sea by 1996 devastated the surrounding environment and ruined the traditional fishing economy of the bordering villages.

This week the government of Kazakhstan announced that its US$260 million rescue program for the Northern Aral Sea is working.

A portion of the Kok-Aral Dam (Photo by Brigitte Brefort courtesy World Bank)

Launched in 2001 by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and supported by the World Bank, the program has increased the North Aral Sea's surface by about 30 percent since the last assessment was conducted in 2003, according to a statement Wednesday by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.

The North Aral Sea's surface increased from 2,550 square kilometers (985 square miles) in 2003, the ministry said, to 3,300 square kilometers (1,275 square miles) in 2008.

And the sea's depth increased from 30 meters (98 feet) in 2003 to 42 meters (138 feet) in 2008.

To increase the volume of water being discharged into the northern part of the sea, the US$85.8 million Kok-Aral Dam was built jointly by the Government of Kazakhstan and the World Bank, with the bank providing a loan of US$65 million.

The 13 kilometer (8 mile) long dam separating the smaller North Aral Sea from its larger, saltier and more polluted southern part was completed in August 2005. Since completing the dam, Kazakhstan has been able to keep the water from the Syr Darya River in the North Aral Sea.
The Kok-Aral Dam is allowing the North Aral Sea to fill with water from the Syr Darya River. (Photo courtesy JAXA)
Newly reconstructed, rebuilt, and rehabilitated waterworks along the Syr Darya are increasing the carrying capacity of the river, filling the Northern Aral Sea and benefiting farmers by irrigating their lands.

With the water level now higher in the northern part of the sea, a sluice can begin operating to allow excess water to flow into the parched South Aral Sea.

"As poor people around the world struggle to keep food on their tables in the face of rising prices, it is gratifying to see that Kazakhstan has found a way to give back fishermen and their families their way of life on the North Aral Sea," said World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who hails from the United States.

"The return of the North Aral Sea shows that man-made disasters can be at least partly reversed, and that food production depends on the sound management of scarce water resources and the environment," said Zoellick.

It's called the Kazakh Miracle. "We see the water now coming back, we are overwhelmed," says a Kazakh spokesperson for the rescue program who declined to be identified. "Indeed, all who witnessed the disaster and have since seen the regeneration have spoken of a miraculous transformation," he said.

In the recent past only one species of fish remained in the North Aral Sea. Today, 15 different species have been recorded - bringing back work and income to about 100 local fishermen.

Aral Sea fishermen are smiling again. (Photo by Brigitte Brefort courtesy World Bank)

Fish exports have restarted and the local industry is growing. In the last year, two processing plants and three fish receiving centers have opened. Two more processing plants are scheduled and a new factory building fiberglass fishing boats is planned.

Even the local climate has improved since the dam was completed. As the lake dried up, winters became colder and harsher, and summers became hotter and drier. Blowing dust, laden with pesticides and other chemicals, is routinely scoured from the dry lake bed and poses a severe public health hazard.

But more recently, local news reports recorded more rain in the former port city of Aralsk, once stranded 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the shore of the shrunken sea. The sea is now creeping closer to Aralsk, bringing hope to its people.

The frequency of sandstorms has decreased and the fish and waterfowl returned as the water level recovered. Fishermen are returning to the city and are planning to stock millions of young fish and to re-introduce the sturgeon to revive the lucrative fishery.

The Aral Sea recovery project now enters its second phase focused on the revitalization of the dry former seabed with the cultivation of the native shrub saxaul. The plan is to accelerate the expansion of vegetative cover by planting saxaul in dried out areas, which is expected to increase the rate of natural regeneration, attracting other plant and animal species.

Saxaul is a shrub indigenous to the arid salt deserts of Central Asia. Reaching heights of three to 10 meters, its thick bark acts as a water storage organ, so that water for humans and livestock can be extracted by pressing quantities of the bark. This hardy plant is known to prevent sand dune movement and protect arable lands, roads and buildings from sand debris.

The saxaul planting project started in April when seeds were sown on the first 500 hectares (2 square miles). The objective of the US$10 million Aral Sea bed rehabilitation project is to plant about 80,000 hectares (310 square miles) over a period of 10 years.

Pasture rehabilitation is part of the recovery program's next stage. The objective is to rehabilitate 75,000 hectares (290 square miles) of grass rangeland to be used for pasture. The recent increase in livestock numbers led to this program, which aims to develop sustainable approaches to rangeland management.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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