Who hasn’t heard of the Aral Sea?

To quickly recap the last post, I talked about the poor environmental state of the lower Murray River in Australia, especially Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong systems which I visited as a child. The degradation of the lower Murray, driven largely by human modification, is approaching the devastation of the Aral Sea in Central Asia – perhaps not as drastic in scale (yet) from the air:

This happened within my lifetime… Image: Wikimedia Commons

Stunning, isn’t it? For a sense of scale, the Aral Sea originally (left image) covered a land area half the size of England. What you see is the tragic end product of a half-century or more of bad environmental management. Let’s take a look at two important questions: why, and how?

The finger-pointing starts with the Soviet authorities. Expansion of irrigation in the region started in the 1940’s, and in the 1960’s government-driven initiatives validated and reinforced the increases. The ideological position of the Soviets was, in simple terms, one of dominion over nature. The Amu and Syr Darya rivers were a resource supply to be exploited using science and engineering, and the Aral Sea may be a necessary casualty of economic prosperity.

Much of the irrigation was (and is) directed onto water-hungry cotton crops. A narrow look at the Soviet agricultural plan would call it a success: Uzbekistan is now one of the world’s biggest cotton exporters. However, the expansion of irrigation was poorly delivered, with huge amounts of water leakage and loss from irrigation systems. The amount of water drawn from the system to achieve a specific cotton yield was much higher than if well-engineered irrigation systems had been deployed.

Because of this, the Aral started to shrink in the 1960’s. It wasn’t a surprise. In the eyes of the authorities, the loss of the Aral was unimportant compared to the goal of producing ‘white gold’. This contrasts with the approach of the Australian government in the Murray. In Australia, individual properties were allocated water rights, many back in the 1950’s and 60’s, with a view to equitable distribution of water and some environmental flow.

However, the base-line allocations in Australia were derived from a relatively wet few decades 50 years ago, and today, with a trend towards lower rainfall and drought, the total water entitlements are simply too high. The Government is attempting to buy back allocations to improve ‘environmental’ flow, but it’s proving extremely complicated and expensive. All the while, the lower Murray suffers.

The root cause and possible solutions in each situation are, therefore, very different. The focused government investment in Central Asia means that countries like Uzbekistan now rely almost exclusively on cotton as a source of revenue, with little economic diversification. Attempts to restore the Aral may compromise this economic output, with negative effects on the entire country.

The final harvest of a cotton crop. Cobalt123, Flickr.

On the flipside, in Australia, it is individuals which stand to lose the most in any attempt to deal with the Murray situation, and they also stand to lose the most if the problem isn’t dealt with: if they can take less water, they may not be able to run a farm, but if they take too much, the system may degrade to a point where farming is impossible anyway (the classic Tragedy of the Commons).

So that is, in a basic nutshell, why we’re facing these disasters today.

The most worrying thing about the Aral Sea’s decline is the catastropic loss of volume and area in the past couple of decades. Unexpectedly, the evaporation rates shot up due to a physical feedback mechanism. Basically, the remaining lake water separated into a salty and fresher layer, which didn’t mix. The top layer, which absorbs heat from the atmosphere, was unable to transfer heat into the bottom layer, so it warmed up faster than usual and evaporated more quickly.

Such feedbacks are worrying, because they’re difficult to predict and even more difficult to handle once they kick in. The lower Murray’s been bailed out of such a chain of events by recent heavy rains, but until a substantial overall increase in environmental flow through the whole system is assured, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen in the future.

Globally, we face a similar suite of uncertainties. Collapsing fisheries, ocean acidification, climate change – all of these issues are well known and have eventuated from an unsustainable, short-term approach to environmental management. In the case of the Aral, a huge, once-thriving lake system has been decimated by top-down, government-dominated intervention. In Australia, decentralised water allocation and the rights of individuals threaten to create a similar environmental outcome. Where does the middle ground lie?

A basic answer is: better regulation, applied with a long-term, precautionary outlook. I’ve been keenly following (among others) the writing of Tim at Moth Incarnate, and look forward to his thoughts on the Murray situation – he knows much more about it than I do. Such an approach is difficult to engineer within an existing framework, however. Uzbekistan is in strife simply because it is so reliant on its cotton crop; their next best exports are fossil fuels. I don’t hold out much hope for their long-term economic health. In Australia, we need to wrangle back enough water to keep the Murray system healthy, without destroying the lives of those currently dependent on their ability to live on the land.

Globally, we must accept the need for regulation and intervention in the way we interact with the environment. Transparency and clarity in such decision-making processes is essential, as is flexibility: medium-term approaches that aren’t working can’t be allowed to run their course. Business as usual is obsolete and unacceptable. We live in a rapidly changing world, and need to take responsibility for our actions, individually, as countries, and as a species managing the only planet we have.

Is there a little blonde-haired child, visiting the Great Barrier Reef today, who’ll look at a bleached underwater wasteland in 20 years and wonder what went wrong? Will she shake her head at the naivete of the approach taken in 2010, or will it be the same in 2030? That’s up to us.

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Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Science | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Who hasn’t heard of the Aral Sea?

  1. Really sad and scary . . . There’s nothing like a satellite photo for showing up environmental disasters.

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