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The Aral Sea – a man-made environmental disaster
1 April 2013. A World to Win News Service. Global warming and rapid change in the ecosystem are creating a serious crisis for the very survival of humanity. A third of the planet’s fresh water has disappeared, or is on the verge of disappearing. Groundwater wells, used by three billion people, are drying up or are at lowering levels, as well as becoming polluted.
Lake Chad, which provides water for over 20 million people from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, has shrunk by 95 percent since 1963. Lake Karachay, in Russia, is a nuclear waste dumping ground, with radioactivity levels almost comparable to Chernobyl. Tens of millions of people all around the world are protesting against the abuse and destruction of nature. Nature is speaking through humanity, that it also has had enough, and wants revolution.
The Aral Sea – a living/dying example
The Aral Sea has been hit so hard by a man-made environmental catastrophe that the results can easily be seen from space.
The Aral Sea is a landlocked, closed basin in Central Asia. It lies between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. The name roughly translates as “Sea of Islands”, referring to the more than 1,500 islands of one hectare or more that once dotted its waters.
Once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea, almost half the size of England, with an area of 68,000 square kilometres, the Aral Sea began steadily shrinking in the 1960s, after the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By 2004 the sea had shrunk to 25 percent of its original surface area, and a nearly fivefold increase in salinity had killed most of its natural flora and fauna. By 2007 it had declined to 10 percent of its original size, splitting into three separate lakes, two of which are too salty to support fish. Many fish species have disappeared.
The once prosperous fishing industry was destroyed. Former seashore villages and towns ended up 70 or 100 kilometres away from the present shore lines. They became ship graveyards. Some of the hulks have been there for a generation. The world’s biggest fish processing plant, which produced over 40,000 tonnes of fish a year and employed 60,000 people, closed down. This collapse brought unemployment and economic hardship.
The ecosystem of the Aral Sea and the river deltas feeding into it have been nearly destroyed, not least because of the much higher salinity. The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals, which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land.
The Aral Sea is also heavily polluted, largely as the result of weapons testing, industrial projects, pesticides and fertilizer run-off. This, along with the salt- and dust-laden air, caused serious public health problems, including high rates of certain kinds of cancer and lung diseases.
With the reduction of the size of the Aral Sea, its climate modifying function was lost, causing local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, winters colder and longer, and little rainfall in the spring. The growing season has been reduced to 170 days a year, and desert storms occur more than 90 days a year.
Capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union in the mid 1950s by representatives of a new capitalist class that had arisen from within the Communist Party and state apparatus. Although the economy would still be characterized by state enterprises and centralized planning for over three more decades, the goal of the economy changed to one of maximizing profit. In the 1960s, in carrying out new policies regarding the role of the country’s regions, the USSR’s new imperialist rulers assigned Central Asia to supplying raw materials, notably cotton.
Most importantly, the Soviet government decided that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in order to grow rice, melons, cereals, and most importantly cotton. This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This did happen eventually, and today Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton. This project turned desert into cotton fields, but it also turned the Aral Sea and beyond into a desert – with tremendous, social, economic and ecological consequences.
The construction of irrigation canals began on a large scale in the 1940s. Many of the canals were poorly built, allowing water to leak or evaporate. From the Qaraqum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, perhaps 30 to 75 percent of the water went to waste. Today only 12 percent of the length of Uzbekistan’s irrigation canals are waterproofed.
By 1960, between 20 and 60 billion cubic metres of water were going each year to the land instead of the Aral sea. Most of the sea’s water supply had been diverted, and in the 1960s the Aral Sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the sea level fell at an average of 20 centimetres a year. In the 1970s, the average rate nearly tripled to 50–60 centimetres per year, and by the 1980s it continued to drop, now with a mean of 80–90 centimetres each year. The rate of water usage for irrigation continued to increase: the amount of water taken from the rivers doubled between 1960 and 2000, and cotton production nearly doubled in the same period.
The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviet rulers; they knew it would happen long before. As early as in 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed. He explained, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”
At the same time the reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968 that “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable”. But by the summer of 2003, the South Aral Sea was vanishing faster than predicted. In the deepest parts of the sea, the bottom waters are saltier than the top, and not mixing. Thus, only the top of the sea is heated in the summer, and it evaporates faster than would otherwise be expected.
From 1960 to 1998 the amount of water it lost was the equivalent of completely draining Lake Erie in North America (the tenth largest lake in the world) and Lake Ontario (between Canada and the U.S.). Over the same time period its salinity increased from about 10 g/L to about 45 g/L. As of 2004, the Aral Sea’s surface area was only 17,160 square kilometres, 25 percent of its original size. By 2007 the sea’s area had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size, and the salinity of the remains of the southern part of the sea had increased to levels in excess of 100 g/L. By comparison, the salinity of ordinary seawater is typically around 35 g/L.
In 1987, the continuing shrinkage split the lake into two separate bodies of water, the North Aral and the South Aral Sea. An artificial channel was dug to connect them, but that connection was gone by 1999 as the two seas continued to shrink. In 2003, the South Aral further divided into eastern and western basins. Shrinkage of the lake also created the Aralkum, a desert on the former lake bed. Since then the loss of the North Aral has been partially reversed.
In the 1960s, in a meeting held in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, the USSR’s deputy minister of irrigation talked about Soviet plans for boosting cotton production by diverting the two main rivers to irrigate the plantations. In that meeting, someone from the audience shouted “But what will happen to the Aral Sea!” “The Aral”, the deputy minister responded, “will have to die off gracefully.” (Natalya Antelava, BBC News).
Many decades later, the governor of the Aralsk region, an area affected by the disaster, Nazhbagin Musabaev, said: “The Aral Sea did not die, the Aral Sea was murdered.”
It is absolutely clear that the imperialist rulers in the Soviet Union were aware of the consequences of their economic projects and their impacts on the Aral Sea, but the driving force was the capitalist mode of production, which requires the maximum profit in the shortest time.
The Aral Sea is now split into North and South sections. On the north side, in 2005 the Kazakh government built a dam to canalise some water towards the sea. Some irrigation repairs have been carried out on Syr Darya river. The water level in the North section has risen from 30 to 38 metres, but viability level is considered to be 42 metres. Due to the decrease in salinity level, a fair amount of fish stocks have returned, restoring some fishing activities by local people. The sea, which had receded 100 kilometres south of the port city of Aral, is now 25 kilometres away. This recovery and its speed was unexpected by observers. The partial restoration has given rise to long absent rain clouds, bringing tentative hope to farmers affected by the regional dust bowl as well as having a positive effect on the ecosystem as a whole.
The South Aral Sea, which lies in Uzbekistan, a much poorer country, has been abandoned to its fate. The Uzbek government wants to use the Amu Darya River to irrigate its cotton plantations. They also plan to explore for oil in the dried up seabed, making it an arena of contention among imperialist powers. This will definitely have a major impact on the ecology of the area and may even affect the partial recovery of the north side.
The Kazakh government plans to turn the north coast into a tourist haven, attracting people from all around the world, by building hotels and all other infrastructure to be able to compete on that market. If this project goes ahead, water consumption and sea pollution will increase too and may endanger the volatile partial recovery. If the tourism project is dropped, the Kazakh government may think twice about the immediate benefits of investments to save the North Aral Sea. However the South Aral Sea is still sitting on death row.
Regional and big-power rivalry and the future of the Aral Sea
Some 68 percent of the water flowing into the Aral sea basin comes from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. About 12 percent of the same flow starts from Afghanistan. All these countries are amongst the poorest in the region. Tajikistan wants to complete the Rogun dam project started in the 1970s. If completed, it would be the tallest dam in the world – 336 metres high. The planned six-turbine dam could produce a tremendous amount of cheap electricity. The construction and control over the distribution of energy is a major issue for rivalry between the imperialist powers and local governments as well. The U.S. imperialists think that cheap energy is vital for the prosperity of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, which they view as a barrier to the further spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, calls this project “stupid” because it would stop the flow of water for his country’s cotton plantations. Russia wants to build the dam and take a bigger share of the energy produced, which means a monopoly over how it will be distributed.
The Rogun dam project has been on and off the table many times since 1970s, a major source of corruption and bribery of big officials. It was a big stick in the hands of the Soviet rulers to tame the local governments and their rivalries.
The increase in energy prices in the past decade makes the construction of the Rogun dam more likely. If this project is carried out, it could have a devastating effect on what remains of the Aral Sea and beyond. How the river lifelines of the Aral Sea are utilised depends on which alternatives are more profitable, and also how the outcome could be used to obtain advantage for some imperialist and reactionary states over their rivals. The future of the Aral Sea and its effect on nature and humans does not play a real role in these calculations.
The environment and the social system
Two-thirds of the services (food, water, medicines, pollination, etc.) provided by nature to humankind are in serious decline worldwide, according to a 2005 UN report. About half of the rain forests have vanished. All this has been mainly caused by capitalist economic activities. But what is also important is that much of this environmental devastation is concentrated in parts of the world dominated by imperialist powers. The imperialist powers consume a hugely disproportional share of world resources and the oppressed nations bear a terribly disproportional share of the burden of the environmental crisis. Therefore the struggle to save the planet is bound up with the struggle against imperialism on the world scale.
The natural ecosystems of our planet have already been seriously damaged. If we do not protect and preserve fast-vanishing ecosystems, and do not move to stem climate change, this planet could become inhabitable. It urgently needs a radically different social and economic system, one that would take into account the short and long term effects of any project on humanity as a whole as well as the sustainability of such projects.
To reverse the relationship between people and nature as it is under the capitalist system, first the relationships among people must change. As long as unjust, oppressive and exploitative relations exist in society, nature can not escape plunder, abuse and destruction. What else do you expect from a system that has no respect for people, let alone nature?
Any given economic enterprise or sector of production has impact beyond its own operations, on the larger economy and society. Under capitalism, capitalists do not take into account these larger environmental and societal costs of their activities. The devastation of our planet is a living/dying example of that.
In a genuine socialist economy, the larger costs and benefits of economic activity must become the concern of the society. This means analysing problems and contradictions that any economic activity may create, not just in the country, but internationally. It means acquiring humanity’s most advanced understanding and unleashing the creativity of the masses in solving problems and contradictions in the service of preserving and the further flourishing of our planet’s whole environment.
The capitalist-imperialist system is not capable of meeting the needs of the people as well as nature. They are not capable of protecting it but will do everything to destroy it if that is what profit commands.
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