Large-scale production of select crops, especially cotton, became a staple of the region under Soviet rule. The heavy use of the waters of the two rivers for crop irrigation reduced the flow of the rivers into the Aral Sea, reducing water levels starting in the 1960s and increasing salinity. By 1990, the lake had separated into two halves as the water levels dropped. The declining water levels and increased salinity effectively eliminated a once vibrant fishing industry, and much of the population around the lake left to find work elsewhere. For example, the population in the areas surrounding the former harbor city of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, decreased by 12.5 percent in just 10 years. Those who remain face some of the highest unemployment rates in the region, and the area is one of the poorest of Kazakhstan.
Restoration of the Northern Aral Sea
With the help of the World Bank, Kazakhstan began efforts to restore the smaller northern portions of the lake in 2001. The first phase of the $86 million project included building the Kok-Aral dam, improving the efficiency of irrigation and increasing agricultural production along the Syr Darya. These efforts have partly restored a portion of the Aral Sea. The shores of the Aral Sea still do not reach Aralsk — at one point, the city was as far as 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the shore, and it is still 17 kilometers from the water's edge — but these efforts have partially rejuvenated the fishing industry around the lake.
The Kok-Aral dam was completed in 2005, and the following year the basin's total fish production had increased nearly fivefold. The absolute volume remains small, even with continued increases through 2012, and the region's production of fish remains a fraction of what it was before the decline of the lake. In addition, the fishing industry remains a small portion (less than 1 percent) of the overall Kazakh economy. Still, the recovery of the Northern Aral Sea is extremely important to the local economy. The Kazakh economy is regionalized and segregated, often with a single industry supporting the local population. While improvements to the fishing industry may be small in comparison to Kazakhstan's total economic output, they are very important to the impoverished area surrounding the lake, given the regionalization of the economy. As the recovery continues, the fishing industry's return — however limited — will help provide work in the local area's traditional industry and help ease social tensions in the Aral Sea region.
Further Restoration Efforts
Despite the success of the first phase, the second phase of the World Bank-supported effort to further restore the Syr Darya basin and the North Aral Sea has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The neighboring countries have not shown the level of cooperation needed for restoration. The Kazakh government sought to restore the Northern Aral Sea at the expense of the southern portion. The project not only meant to restore the sea but also to ensure the continued supply of water for irrigation along the Syr Darya in order to continue to support agriculture in the region. The Kok-Aral dam aggravates the separation between the northern and southern portions of the lake (although the dam technically allows for the transfer of water between the halves). In addition, the continued heavy use of the waters of the Amu Darya for crop irrigation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan prevents that river from supplying the southern half of the lake. Restoration of the southern portion of the lake, which is further separated into western and eastern sections, would almost certainly require regional cooperation and international mediation.
The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, an organization that aims to finance joint projects for and programs centered on preserving the Aral Sea, includes the countries of Central Asia — Uzbekistan recently took over the chairmanship from Kazakhstan. This organization is supposed to be cooperative and has plans through 2015, including a number of projects to improve the region's environment. The Uzbek government alone claims to have invested more than $1 billion on restoration efforts. Despite this, there has been a lack of significant progress toward restoration of the South Aral Sea.
An Uncertain Future
The unequal distribution of resources in the region makes the possibility of true trans-boundary management of water resources highly unlikely. The downstream nations — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — have greater access to non-water resources, like fossil fuels, and have larger economies than those upstream. However, the downstream countries remain vulnerable to the upstream nations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan regarding guaranteed access to water resources. Moreover, rapidly growing populations will further strain Central Asia's limited water resources. The population of Central Asia has doubled since the 1980s and is expected to keep growing. The uncertain future of regional water resources only serves to increase tensions in the region as neighboring nations with differing priorities will continue competing for the limited resource.
Uzbekistan is especially vulnerable to water shortages because of its economic reliance on cotton, irrigated with the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, for export. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Global Agriculture Information Network, the 2013-2014 market year for Uzbek cotton experienced a few difficulties, including the need to replant 10-15 percent of the crop due to April storms and problems with the availability of irrigation in the southern growing region during hot summer months. The total area harvested decreased by 2 percent (in part due to using the land for other crops), while total production decreased by 5.5 percent when compared with the 2012-2013 market year.
Because of its reliance on the both the Syr Darya and Amu Darya for its cotton exports, Uzbekistan has objected vehemently to plans to build large dams in the poorer upstream nations and has even disrupted natural gas flows to these countries. Through the construction of diversion channels and dams upstream, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan could limit water flow to Uzbekistan. In 2012, Uzbek President Islam Karimov declared that if Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan use water as leverage in the region, war could begin. Little progress has been made on some of the larger dam projects upstream. However, given Uzbekistan's economic reliance on cotton, even smaller channel projects pose a threat, and decreases in the volumes of cotton harvested will only make matters worse.
The success of future rehabilitation projects for the Aral Sea depends on the level of regional cooperation; even limited restoration of the southern half of the lake likely will require basin-wide water management. However, the inherent tensions in the region are not expected to dissipate in the near future, making the necessary international cooperation unlikely. Ongoing disputes regarding water are almost certain in the region, and while individual countries could make efforts to restore the lake, the cooperation necessary for significant restoration of the Aral Sea will remain elusive. The success story of the Northern Aral Sea will probably remain an isolated one for the foreseeable future.