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From salt desert to sea water - Aral sea comes back
Astana, July 28th: One of the biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century has been partly reversed by man. Known as the Kazakh Miracle, an ambitious and far-sighted recovery programme has increased the North Aral Sea’s surface by approximately 30% since the last census was conducted in 2003.

The North Aral Sea’s surface increased from 2,550 km2 in 2003 - to 3,300 km2 in 2008.
The Sea’s depth increased from a very worrying 30 meters in 2003 - to 42 meters in 2008. As a consequence, the distance between the port of Aralsk and the sea shore has shrunk from a depressing 100km - to only 25km.

“This is a miracle for the Kazak government which launched the rescue programme in 2001. If we remember the dry sea-ground in 1989 and the water surface of the entire Aral Sea [North and South] was only 41,000 km2 [a decrease of 40% since 1956] and we see the water now coming back, we are overwhelmed,” says a spokesperson for the rescue programme. Indeed, all who witnessed the disaster and have since seen the regeneration – have spoken of a miraculous transformation.

With the return of water, the Aral Sea’s flora and fauna is also returning. In the recent past there was only one species of fish left in the North Aral Sea. Today there are a total of 15 different species recorded - bringing back work and money to approximately 100 local fishermen.

Even fish exports have restarted and the local industry grows commensurately: in the last year alone, two processing plants and three fish receiving centers have opened. Two more processing plants are scheduled and a new factory building fiberglass fishing boats is planned. In addition to fish, a significant number of sea birds and reptiles have returned to the Aral and surrounding area.

Behind the regeneration stands Kazakhstan’s rescue programme launched in 2001 and supported by the World Bank. The programme’s first and principle objective was to increase the volume of water being discharged into the northern part of the sea. A 13km-long dike was built which separated the North Aral Sea from the southern part. Better water management systems were put in place to maximise the water flowing into the sea from the Syr Daria River. Thanks to this 86 million USD project (which included a 64.5 million USD loan from the World Bank), the dike was completed in August 2005. Underlining his commitment to ecological issues, this program was launched by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“As poor people around the world struggle to keep food on their tables in the face of rising prices, it is gratifying to see that Kazakhstan has found a way to give back fishermen and their families their way of life on the North Aral Sea,” said Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank. “The return of the North Aral Sea shows that man-made disasters can be at least partly reversed, and that food production depends on the sound management of scarce water resources and the environment.”

The recovery of the Aral Sea project now enters its second phase… In addition to building a new dam and new water management systems for a total investment of 260 million USD, the revitalization of the dry former seabed is planned by cultivating saxaul. The plan is to accelerate the expansion of vegetative cover by planting saxaul in dried out areas, which will, in turn, increase the rate of natural regeneration – attracting other plant and animal species.
Saxaul is a 3 to 10 metres shrub indigenous to the arid salt deserts of Central Asia. Its thick bark acts as a water storage organ, which means that water for humans and livestock can be extracted by pressing quantities of the bark. In addition, this resistant plant is known to prevent sand dune movement and protect arable lands, roads and buildings from sand debris.

The saxaul planting project started in April 2008 - when seeds were sown in the first 500 hectares. The objective of the 10 million USD Aral Sea bed rehabilitation project is to plant over 80,000 hectares over a period of 10 years.
Another component of the Aral Sea project is pasture rehabilitation. The objective is to rehabilitate 75,000 hectares of motley grass rangeland to be used for pasture. The recent increase in livestock numbers led to this programme with the need of developing sustainable approaches to rangeland management that are appropriate to the changing social and economic situation.

The Aral Sea disaster has its roots in 1956 when the Soviet Regime decided to increase its rice and cotton production, by exploiting the Amour Daria and Syr Daria Rivers, which were the main alimentation of the Aral Sea. The rivers were diverted to irrigate crops. As a consequence the Aral lost its main water sources, the sea began to shrink - and the salt-level increased.

Information Centre for Kazakhstan
Tel: + 33 (0) 1 42 96 46 00
Fax: + 33 (0) 1 42 96 46 56
Mer d'Aral
Mer d'Aral
Author(s) : Greg Delaney Marston-Nicholson
Date : 28/07/2008