Aral Sea Loss and Cotton (ARAL Case)

     CASE NUMBER:        185
     CASE NAME:          Aral Sea Loss and Cotton

A.   Identification 
1.   The Issue
     The destruction of the Aral Sea ecosystem has been sudden and
severe.  Beginning in the 1960s, agricultural demands have deprived
this large Central Asian salt lake of enough water to sustain
itself, and it has shrunk rapidly.  Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and
other Central Asian states use this water to grow cotton and other
export crops, in the face of widespread environmental consequences,
including fisheries loss, water and soil contamination, and
dangerous levels of polluted airborne sediments.  It is generally
agreed that the current situation is unsustainable, but the poverty
and export dependency of the Central Asian states have prevented
real action, and the sea continues to shrink.
2.   Description
     It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is
one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded.
Humans have made use of the waters of the Aral basin for thousands
of years, borrowing from its two major rivers: the Amu Darya, which
flows into the Aral Sea from the south; and the Syr Darya, which
reaches the sea at its north end.  As the twentieth century began,
irrigated agriculture in the basin was still being conducted at a
sustainable level.
     After the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union,
this began to change.  Traditional agricultural practices were
destroyed by collectivization, and Soviet planners sought products
that could be exported for hard currency.  They placed cotton high
on their list, calling it `white gold,' and the Soviet Union became
a net exporter of cotton in 1937.  Change accelerated in the
1950s, as Central Asian irrigated agriculture was expanded and
mechanized.  The Kara Kum Canal opened in 1956, diverting large
amounts of water from the Amu Darya into the desert of
Turkmenistan, and millions of hectares of land came under
irrigation after 1960.
     A crucial juncture had been reached, and after 1960 the level
of the Aral Sea began to drop, while diversion of water continued
to increase.  While the sea had been receiving about fifty cubic
kilometers of water per year in 1965, by the early 1980s this had
fallen to zero.
     As the Aral shrank, its salinity increased, and by 1977 the
formerly large fish catch had declined by over seventy-five
percent.  By the early 1980s, commercially useful fish had been
eliminated, shutting down an industry that had employed 60,000. 
The declining sea level lowered the water table in the region,
destroying many oases near its shores.
     The devotion to irrigated agriculture had other direct effects
as well.  Much ecologically sensitive land in the river deltas was
converted to cropland, and pesticide use was heavy throughout the
Aral basin, resulting in heavy contaminant concentrations in the
sea.  Overirrigation caused salt buildup in many agricultural
     By the beginning of the 1990s, the surface area of the Aral
had shrunk by nearly half, and the volume was down by seventy-five
percent.  A host of secondary effects began to appear.
     Regional climate became more continental, shortening the
growing season and causing some farmers to switch from cotton to
rice, which demanded even more diverted water.  The exposed area
of former seabed was now over 28,000 square kilometers, from which
winds picked up an estimated 43 million tons of sediments laced
with salts and pesticides, with devastating health consequences for
surrounding regions.  These contaminated Aral dust storms have
been reported as far away as the Arctic and Pakistan.
Respiratory illnesses were particularly common, and throat cancers
burgeoned.  Regional vegetation loss may have increased albedo,
possible reducing precipitation.
     These developing problems had not gone unnoticed during the
Soviet era.  The solution devised was characteristic of Soviet
planners: the waters of Siberia's Ob River were to be diverted
southward, so that they would flow to Central Asia rather than the
Arctic.  Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost put an end to this scheme, as
the Soviet populace became aware of ecological disasters, and began
to have the freedom to petition and protest.
     In 1988, the Soviet Central Committee decreed that cotton
growing was to be reduced, so that the Aral Sea could receive water
in gradually increasing amounts through 2005.  There was some
reduction in water diversion as a result.
     The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 ended
any such central authority; the Aral crisis was now in the hands of
the five Central Asian nations.
     They signed an agreement in 1992 pledging efforts toward Aral
rehabilitation, but little action has been taken.  Another
meeting, in January 1994, resulted in offers to reduce water
consumption, and promises of money for an Aral fund.
     For the present, the Aral continues to shrink, and may soon be
lifeless.  Its future prospects are uncertain.  The sea could be
stabilized with improvements in the efficiency of irrigation, but
would remain incapable of supporting most fauna, and the current
problems of pollution and lost habitat would go unaddressed. 
Substantial but feasible irrigation improvements, and some
reduction in cropland, would allow partial restoration of the sea,
though it would still be incapable of supporting its former
     Full restoration would require wholesale regional changes,
such as a shift away from agriculture.  Urbanization, combined with
large revenues from oil and gas projects, might facilitate such a
shift.  Genetically engineered crops in need of less water might
also provide a solution in the next few decades.
3.   Related Cases
     ISRAEL case
4.   Draft Author:  Joshua Calder
B.   Legal Cluster
5.   Discourse and Status:  AGRee and INPROGress
     If the case is conceived as involving concrete measures to
change agriculture so as to assist the Aral, there is general
agreement that such measures need to be taken.  However, there has
been no agreement among the Central Asian nations on specific
actions, and attempts to reach such agreement would likely be
6.   Forum and Scope: Commonwealth of Independent States and West
Asia [WASIA]
     All the concerned states are members of the Commonwealth of
Independent States, the grouping of former Soviet republics, but
that body is without substantive power or meaningful adjudicating
7.   Decision Breadth: 6
     All five Central Asian nations are affected by changes in
water use in the Aral basin, and Russia also joined the January
1994 conservation plan.
8.   Legal Standing: Treaty
     The Central Asian countries have made agreements concerning
the Aral.  A 1992 document called for insuring delivery of water to
the sea and its deltas.  In 1994, the countries pledged to give
one percent of their GNPs to an Aral Sea fund, and agreed to use
less irrigation water.  However, little action appears to have
been taken.  For instance, it was reported in late 1994 that no
money had so far reached the Aral fund.
C.   Geographic Filters
9.   Geography
     a. Continental Domain:   Asia
     b. Geographic Site:      Central Asia
     c. Geographic Impact:    Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan
     The Aral Sea is shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but water
conservation would also affect Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and
10.  Sub-National Factors: YES
     The Karakalpaks are an ethnically distinct people in northwest
Uzbekistan, whose region is centered around the Amu Darya delta at
the south end of the Aral.  They have been hard-hit by the
ecological disaster, and "accuse the Uzbek government in Tashkent
of taking no interest in their problems."  The Karakalpak
republic proclaimed its sovereignty in 1990, and is reportedly
constructing its own water management system, to avoid being
subject to decisions by the central government.
11.  Type of Habitat: DRY
D.   Trade Filters
12.  Type of Measure: Regulatory Standard [REGSTD]
     The regulatory measure that would change social behavior in
this case would be administrative.  Effects on trade will come
indirectly, through government decisions that will determine how
much cotton and other agricultural products are produced for
13.  Direct vs. Indirect Impacts: INDirect
14.  Relation of Measure to Impact
     Directly related:        Yes  WATER
     Indirectly related:      Yes  COTTON
     Not related:             No
     Process:                 Yes  WATER
15.  Trade Product Identification: COTTON
     Other agricultural products, chiefly rice, are also grown with
water diverted from Aral feeders.  As changing climate reduces the
growing season, rice has been replacing cotton as the crop of
choice around the southern end of the lake.

16.  Economic Data
     Industry output ($): not available
     Employment: millions
     The waters diverted from the Aral support agriculture worth
billions of dollars, employing millions of people.  Uzbekistan's
chief crop is cotton, which in 1991 made up 33.6% of total exports,
and is now the country's leading hard-currency earner.  In 1991,
43.2% of the total value of the country's net material product was
agricultural.  In 1990-1992, 17% of the labor force was
engaged in agriculture.
     Turkmenistan obtained 46.4% of its net material product by
value through agriculture in 1991.  Agriculture constituted 33.9%
of Kazakhstan's net material product that year.  Twenty percent
of the labor force was employed in agriculture in the period 1990-
17.  Degree of Competitive Impact: MEDium
     The agricultural industries of Central Asia are able to
significantly reduce costs by nearly complete externalization of
environmental costs.  Were these costs to be internalized, output
would be considerably reduced.
     Central Asia is at the same latitude as Maine: the area around
the Aral is too far north for optimal cotton production.  Without
the massive government support inherited from Soviet planning, the
region might not be a natural producer of cotton on the world
18.  Industry Sector: AGRICultural
19.  Exporters and Importers: MANY and MANY
     China is the world's leading producer and consumer of cotton.
20.  Environmental Problem Type: HABITat loss
     The problem is general habitat loss, brought on by
unsustainable usage of water in the Aral basin, resulting in the 
gradual disappearance of the sea.  Most animal life in the Aral
died as the sea's volume declined from 1,075 cubic kilometers with
a salinity of 10 grams per liter, to only 54 cubic kilometers with
more than ten times that salinity.  Wetlands along the shore
disappeared as the lake receded, and falling water tables destroyed
     Additional habitat was lost as river water was diverted from
delta wetlands, which were also being converted into cropland. 
Plant and animal populations shifted, with environmental changes
favoring species better adapted to drought and salinity.  Further
strain was placed on the environment by the onset of a more
continental climate in the region, induced by the loss of the
Aral's moderating influence.
     There are secondary sink problems, which include loss of
cropland to accumulating salts, and air and water pollution. 
Excessive irrigation has caused salt accumulation in soil
throughout the Aral basin, causing declining harvests.  Between
1968 and 1985, sixty percent of the cropland in the Amu Darya delta
was affected by salinity.
     The shrinking of the sea has exposed almost 30,000 square
kilometers of lake bed, which is so filled with salts and chemicals
that it is toxic to plants.  Millions of tons of such sediments
are lifted from the lakebed by winds, damaging plants, crops, and
human health.  In some areas, airborne salt accumulates at a rate
of four tons per hectare per year. 
     Water pollution in rivers has been severe.  Agricultural
runoff has filled them with pesticides, defoliants, fertilizer, and
21.  Species information
     Species: 24 species of fish
                  sudak (pike-perch)
                  sazan (carp)
                  volba (Caspian roach)
              invertebrate lake species
                  corsac fox (Vulpes corsac)
                  reed cat
                  wild boar
               173 species of birds
              oasis and delta flora
              humans (Homo sapiens)
     Increasing salinity became intolerable for various kinds of
fish beginning in the 1970s, and some species unique to the Aral
Sea are now extinct.  Others are found elsewhere, and could be
reintroduced if the lake were sufficiently restored.  Destruction
of isolated oases undoubtedly eliminated some unique species. 
Other species are being driven from the area by habitat loss, but
are not in danger of extinction.
     Humans are suffering health impacts, from pesticide-
contaminated and saline water, and from windblown sediments
containing salts and chemicals.  Anaemia and infant mortality are
reported to have risen.  There are heightened rates of throat
cancer, as well as respiratory and eye diseases.  Deteriorating
conditions have also been tied to increases in leukemia and liver
and kidney diseases.
22.  Impact and Effect: HIGH and STructural [STRCT]
23.  Urgency and Lifetime: HIGH and 100s of years
     Most vertebrate species have already been eliminated from the
Aral.  Habitat destruction could be complete within decades, and
each year probably brings additional species loss, for instance in
the deltas and oases.
24.  Substitutes: Conservation (CONSV)
     The key to stabilizing or replenishing the Aral is reduced
diversion of water.  Irrigation as developed during the Soviet era
is highly wasteful and inefficient.  Israeli engineers
experimenting on an Uzbek cotton farm recently claimed they had
increased yield by forty percent while reducing water consumption
by two-thirds.
     The primary obstacle is money.  The Central Asian republics
are the poorest of the former Soviet Union, and have little to
invest in rebuilding irrigation infrastructure.  In 1991, gross
national product per capita ranged from $2,030 in Kazakhstan to
$980 in Uzbekistan.
VI.  OTHER Factors
25.  Culture: NO
26.  Human Rights  YES
     There are two potential intersections of this case with human
rights.  First, preserving or restoring the Aral may depend on
limiting water use, a volatile issue which could lead to human
rights violations in this region of ethnic tensions.  There have
been reports of `water posses' "making night raids along borderland
irrigation canals to combat water poaching by other nationality
groups."  Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991,
fighting over water rights in the Aral basin has occurred between
Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks, and Turkmen and Uzbeks. 
Water rights could become a cause of interstate conflict.
     Second, the states of the region of poor human rights records
since independence.  Uzbekistan is highly intolerant of dissent,
and might crack down on ecological groups trying to change Aral-
related policies, or on the Karakalpaks, an ethnically distinct
people who make up much of the population of the region around the
Amu Darya, at the south end of the sea, and who are
disproportionately affected by the Aral disaster.  Uzbekistan's
Birlik political movement called for diversification of agriculture
"on both ecological and economic grounds," but has been
27.  Trans-Boundary Issues: YES
     The Aral's future is greatly complicated by trans-border
issues.  The sea's basin includes all five Central Asian countries,
and the Amu Darya runs along or near the border of Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan for hundreds of miles.  Responsibility is thus diffused,
and each country is likely to be reluctant to take actions that do
not benefit it directly.
28.  Relevant Literature

Economist, 15 October 1994. "No More Caviar," 38, 43.
Ellis, William S.  "A Soviet Sea Lies Dying."  National
     Geographic 177 (February 1990): 72-93.
Gleason, Gregory.  "Uzbekistan: From Statehood to Nationhood?"
     In Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States,
     ed. Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras, 331-360.  Cambridge:
     Cambridge University Press, 1993.  
Kuznetsov, N. T.  "Geographical and Ecological Aspects of 
     Aral Sea Hydrological Functions."  Post-Soviet Geography
     33 (May 1992): 324-331.
Micklin, Philip P.  "The Aral Crisis: Introduction to the Special
     Issue."  Post-Soviet Geography 33 (May 1992): 269-282. 
Nature, 20 January 1994. "Asian Republics Agree on Joint 
     Rescue Plan to Save the Aral Sea," 206.
New Scientist, 22 January 1994. "Neighbors Sign Deal to Save
     Aral Sea," 10.
Smith, David R.  "Change and Variability in Climate and Ecosystem
     Decline in Aral Sea Basin Deltas."  Post-Soviet Geography
     35 (March 1994): 142-165.

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