by Rudolf TIMOFEEV, hydrogeologist
The water problems of the Aral and Caspian Seas took a dramatic turn for the worse about thirty years ago when their water areas were found to be shrinking fast. To fight the plague scientists started to develop hydrotechnical projects of diverting a part of northern rivers' discharge south. A dam was erected to separate the Kara Bogaz Bay from the Caspian Sea. However, all such devices failed. The diversion of flows was opposed by various public organizations; a respective government resolution was adopted. As for the Caspian Sea, it suddenly went into the offensive flooding shores, and so the dam had to be demolished. Why were scientists unable to foresee these events? What has changed in this respect over the recent decades? Answers to these and other questions may, perhaps, be found in the monograph by Grigory Voropayev, Gabil Ismailov and Vladimir Fyodorov entitled "The Problems Related to the Management of Water Resources of the Aral-Caspian Region" (Moscow, Nauka Publishers, 2003).
The first thing that is immediately noticed and causes some bewilderment: one tried to put together two very different and drainless water bodies with practically no connections whatsoever (those existed in a very remote past), with one exception, though: both are grandiosely exposed to androgenic factors.
In the authors' words, the excessive use of "the water resources of the Aral-Caspian region, especially since the early 1960s, both at the origin (the Volga basin), and in the discharge area (plains) has drastically changed the ecological situation..." For the worse, sure.
So, why did the water of the Caspian Sea start to increase so unexpectedly, though experts predicted the reverse trend?
Judging by the graph given in the book, scientists used materials of relatively accurate observations carried on since 1820. For 115 years since specialists have noted just separate small deviations of the level from the average. However, already Academician Leo Berg (1876 - 1950) proved
Indicators of Aral dynamics. 1 - salt concentration; 2 - water surface area; 3 - water level; 4 - irrigated land area.
that the sea had repeatedly experienced abrupt or gradual rises and falls well before that. For example, about 1710 its level went down to the mark of - 30 m (the Caspian cuphole lies below World Ocean level), then it quickly rose by 7 meters (1805) just to fall again. Therefore, the natural behavior of the Caspian Sea absolutely did not preclude its assault onto the land.
The exuberant progress of technology and industry in the twentieth century intensified human interference in the natural environment: it manifested itself in marshland reclamation, in the construction of dams and reservoirs, and in the annihilation of forests and the plowing up of enormous territories. All that happened in the Volga basin and inevitably told on the condition of the Caspian receptacle. The substantial decrease of river discharge must have concurred with the natural recession of the Caspian level. As a result, the general impression was that the sea had begun to shoal. To reverse the trend the Kara Bogaz bay was hastily isolated, and scientists contemplated the project of supplying the Volga with the water of northern rivers.
However, it would be unfair to reproach scientists for such miscalculations: the dynamics of natural phenomena has been studied but poorly, and so have its motive forces; ecological problems tend to get worse in the entire world. It is not always possible to foresee the consequences of major environment transformations aimed at most intensive use of natural resources. As they say, we cannot find favors with the nature after all we have done to it.
Let us point out one serious omission of the authors: they have limited themselves to the analysis of river discharge dynamics and disregarded the subsoil discharge. However, it has long been known of the existence of the deeply buried valley of the Paleo-Volga (just like those of other rivers). One wonders, if the ground water could affect the Caspian Sea, and if it did, then how. Can we ignore this water balance component?
Proceeding from the authors' general conclusion about the radical change of the ecological situation due
to the use of water resources, this conclusion is justified: the decrease of the Caspian level was triggered by the construction of the cascade of reservoirs along the Volga and its tributaries. After they had been filled, the general surface discharge into the sea increased. Its growth must have been contributed by marshland reclamation, and by the shrinking of woodlands...
Such are the suppositions that need cogent scientific substantiation. Unfortunately, the monograph gives none, nor does provide appropriate calculations. But unless we draw lessons from the past errors, who can guarantee that we will not repeat them again?
Of special interest are the chapters devoted to the Aral Sea basin, especially, since in 2002 the Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in his letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin recommended to revive the project of diverting a part of Siberian rivers' discharge into Central Asia. The proposal evoked a spate of publications in Russian newspapers and magazines. Here are just two commentaries.
Nadezhda Markina entitled her article in the Russian Scientific Gazette (No. 2, 2003) "Aral Is Still Alive", although the quoted data rather suggest the opposite: the sea is altogether abandoned by fishermen; its water level has fallen by 23 m; its area has shrunk 5 times; the water below 22 m is deprived of oxygen and dominated by hydrogen sulphide; and the water salinity has grown 7 times up to 70%. Artemia shellfish are the only sea inhabitants to have survived.
The article says: "This ecological disaster is watched by the entire world, as its consequences are hard to predict. Thus, numerous troubles have already been inflicted by the salt raised by wind from the exposed seabed and swept over Kara-Kalpak, the northern Caspian Coast, all the way to the Stavropol Territory. It is to this salt that physicians attribute the increased incidence of lung cancer among the Kara Kalpak population. No one can tell how and when other effects will come into play". However, it was observed much earlier that the acute deficit of clean water around the Aral Sea had caused a sharp growth of child mortality and of the morbidity rate among local inhabitants.
There is no doubt that the shoaling of Aral bodes ill for people both in adjacent and even in more distant regions. But what should be done to minimize the scale of the naturaltechnogenic catastrophe?
This question is addressed by another publication: Nezavisimaya
Gazeta (Independent Gazette) of April 23, 2003 carried the opinions of two experts. One of them, the reclamation engineer Alexander Pobedimsky ("Russia Is Going to Flood Central Asia") points out: "Before planning the diversion of rivers we should radically improve the water management system". In fact, no one of sound mind would ever suggest "the diversion of rivers"; this misnomer was used by opponents of the project to stress its absurdity. Besides, why is the certainly necessary rationalization of water management incompatible with the work on the canal project?
The author rejects offhand the very idea of supplying (selling) Siberian water to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. To be sure, his arguments are mostly emotional or unfeasible in the near future (e.g., transition to drip irrigation).
The other expert of Neiavisimaya Gazeta , Doctor of Geography Alexei Belyakov ("Five Preliminary Pieces of Advice") agrees that the canal project is expedient, though he points out the need of a comprehensive program of hydrotechnical works, including the construction of a system of reservoirs for the irrigation of fertile but arid steppes in the south of West Siberia, protection against floods and provision of regular shipping on the Ob, Irtysh and their tributaries. Besides, it will be possible to make use of water power. In the opinion of Dr. Belyakov, a working group comprising, chiefly, scientists should substantially update the obsolete concept of "the diversion". And he puts a reasonable question: is the present RF Ministry of Natural Resources capable of implementing the proposed grandiose construction project? Judging by the fact that the Krapivensky waterworks facility on the river Tom has never been erected, the answer is "No". Therefore, the author proposes to set up a ministry of water resources to take charge of the basin structures (now being managed by MinTransport and MinPrirody) as well as the operating hydropower plants and reservoirs.
Thus the above newspaper publications bring us back to the key problem- management of the water resources of the Aral-Caspian region. The monograph by Grigory Voropayev, Gabil Ismailov and Vladimir Fyodorov is intended to demonstrate that currently there is every prerequisite for putting to use their ecological and mathematical models for the management of water and land resources and thus finding the best options of effective economic policies.
Sure, these models take account of human activities in relation to surface discharge, but, as mentioned above, disregard the dynamics of ground waters. And in the Aral Sea area this problem is especially acute. The hydrogeological studies carried out there in the past years have proven: the water-bearing horizons are notably worn out through enormous losses caused by the sinking of thousands of wells (primarily, for stock-breeding needs). Artesian water comes out to the surface through those wells, evaporating and salting the soil.
Another no less significant factor, extremely hard to account for, is related to the natural processes responsible for substantial fluctuations of Caspian and Aral levels in the past. The causes of such phenomena are still an enigma. They may be the effects of global climatic changes, restructuring of atmospheric circulation or tectonic shifts. Yet, in the past 20th century human technological activities (technogenesis) played the crucial role. That is suggested by the data quoted in the monograph: "the dying- out" of the Aral Sea is causing a continuous rise of the ground air temperature far beyond the area (data of the meteorological stations of Naryn, Fergana and Tashkent).
The reviewed book not only lists the negative ecological effects caused by human activities but suggests ways of rehabilitating the area. However, strange as it may seem, it does not address the problem of diverting a part of Siberian rivers' discharge to Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
Presently, all experts agree that the Aral Sea is doomed, and its place will be occupied by separate relatively small water bodies. But this is not to mean it will be inexpedient to build a great canal so as to save people, not the sea. It is hardly possible to replenish the deficit of clear water here, both surface and ground, from the local sources. A similar situation is observed in the neighboring areas of the Russian Federation which might also stand much to gain from Siberian water.
The situation in the Aral basin will not change for the better even if the irrigated area is not increased. That is seen from the graph supplied by Doctor of Geography Okmir Agakhanyants of Byelorussia: the lid on further irrigation projects has produced no effect. The graph also shows that the ecological catastrophe in the region is due to human activities. The Aral sea level has been going down ever since 1960, just after the irrigation area there had exceeded 4.3 mln hectares.
So, let us agree with the authors' conclusion that the current water management system should be put in order (given that corresponding scientific developments are available).
Besides, in planning ambitious water diversion projects a comprehensive approach is needed with due regard for the interests of both southern and northern regions. Otherwise, a great canal will do no good.
Illustrations supplied by the author and from the editorial archives
Permanent link to this publication:
LVietnam LWorld Y G