The New York Times

August 5, 2003

$85 Million Project Begins for Revival of the Aral Sea


KOKARAL, Kazakhstan After nearly half a century of studying and deploring the drying up of the Aral Sea, one of the world's greatest environmental disasters, an international agency is building a dike to resuscitate part of the sea.

There is broad agreement that it is impossible to return the sea level to its pre-1960 level, 72 feet higher than it is now. That was before the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies.

The World Bank is financing the next best option, an $85 million project to revive the northern part of the sea, known as the Small Sea, while giving up on the largely dead Big Sea to the south.

Work on the project, an eight-mile dike, started here last month. Officials expect three miles to be completed by Dec. 31, with the rest to be finished next year, Yuri Ponomarev, the site manager for the main contractor, from Moscow, said in an interview here.

At Kokaral, the uninhabited place where the Syr Darya flows into the sea, stand the remains of a dike that volunteers built 10 years ago. Made of sand, with no sluice to prevent the water from going over the top and no stone cover on the sea side to stop erosion, the dike repeatedly breached. The last time, in 1999, two people drowned.

Now, contractors here said, the work is being properly carried out. The slope will be much shallower on the sea side, the sand will be covered in seashells and stones to resist waves, and the structure will stand 10 feet above what experts anticipate to be the future level of the sea.

Syr Darya water will be prevented from flowing into the Big Sea, where it has been losing a battle with evaporation. Instead, it will flow to the Small Sea, which in four years or so engineers expect to rise 13 feet and recover 230 square miles of exposed former seabed.

Then a sluice will be opened, and the excess water will be allowed to flow south again into the Big Sea. The World Bank project includes rebuilding waterworks along the Syr Darya to increase the flow of the waterway substantially.

As a result of the two components, experts said, the salt content of the Small Aral should drop, to somewhere from 4 parts per thousand to 17 parts. It is now up to 35. Many of the 24 fish species that once supplied a 50,000-ton-a-year fishery are expected to return.

To the Kazakhs near the Small Aral, the benefits will be considerable. In Tastubek, a fishing village of 17 families in clay houses near the Small Sea, the residents are luckier than most people in the region. When the high salinity killed off all of the fish except a flounder introduced in the 1970's for its resistance to salt, a Danish aid program, From Kattegat to the Aral Sea, provided them a few years ago with nets to catch the flounder and refrigerators to store it.

But residents had never seen a flat fish with both eyes on the same side. The reaction was revulsion. "I was disgusted when I saw it for the first time," Bayan Seitpembetova said. "I thought it was a monster."

But over a recent lunch of fried flounder, her husband, Duzhbay, who heads the fishing cooperative, proudly said he was the first person in the village to prepare the fish.

The flounder, despite its delicate flavor and nutritional value, fetches 10 cents versus 70 cents for the popular carp from the lakes in the delta.

"The flounder is only keeping us alive until the other fish come back," Mr. Seitpembetov said, noting that its fishing season is just in the fall.

In Aralsk, population 35,000, once the main northern port for a sea that is now 50 miles away, Dr. Marat Turemuratov, 46, an emergency physician, said the closing of the local cannery and fishery had put many residents in poverty.

"Almost all the women are anemic, and we have a very high childbirth death rate," Dr. Turemuratov said. "Most people can't afford to eat meat or fish. They survive on tea and bread and, sometimes, macaroni."

In addition to reviving the commercial fishery, experts expect the Small Aral revival to increase rainfall and expand pastures. It should also improve the ground water, much of which has become too salty to drink and, according to health experts, has caused increases in stomach and esophagus cancers.

The greater rainfall will most likely reduce the dust storms that have increased respiratory diseases, Aralsk doctors say.

At the Big Sea to the south, the salinity is so high that nearly all fish have died off. On the tip of the Kulandy Peninsula, there were many small dead anchovylike fish, atherina, washed up on the shore, and others swam unsteadily, dying of salt poisoning.

The sole commercial future for the Big Sea is the artemia brine shrimp, whose eggs, which can be hatched under controlled conditions, provide important food for baby fish raised in farms worldwide and retail for $5 to $15 a pound. The shrimp are extraordinarily resistant to salt and proliferate when predators vanish.

At a simple laboratory on the northwestern shore of the Big Sea, probably the sole settlement on the entire sea, an American biologist, Brad Marden, peered through a microscope at a shrimp and her eggs. "We're still far from commercial production," said Mr. Marden, who works for the INVE Group, a collection of more than 30 companies based in Belgium that is involved in global animal rearing. "There just aren't enough shrimp yet."

He said he hoped that when the salinity of the Big Sea, now at 85 parts per thousand, exceeded 110, a larva that is its last predator would disappear and the shrimp population would explode.

"But I don't know," he said. "This sea has very few nutrients. It's hard to predict what will happen."

When the Big Sea is deprived of water from the Syr Darya for several years while the Small Sea fills up, it will drop a foot or so if rainfall is weak, said Masood Ahmad, the World Bank official who is managing the project. How much seabed will be bared remains uncalculated, but Mr. Ahmad said the dike would probably have no effect on the Big Sea, which is continually shrinking, anyway.

The project has drawn experts' praise.

"I think there would be net positive ecological and economic benefits, even taking into account potential damage to the southern sea," said Dr. Philip P. Micklin, a retired professor of geography at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who specializes in the Aral Sea. "And given the money available and the magnitude of problems, I guess it's the best one could expect."

Another specialist, Dr. Nikolai V. Aladin of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, likes to think of himself as a father of the project. In a telephone interview, he recalled how he had advocated the first dike, whose positive if ephemeral effects the World Bank cited as proof of the value of the project.

"It was experimental," Dr. Aladin said. "We wanted to prove that disasters made by the hand of man could be repaired by the hand of man. I am very proud they are building it properly now."

The recovery of the 230 square miles of seabed will probably do little to end the dust storms in the south, Dr. Micklin said. The storms remove an estimated 40,000 tons a year of clay dust and salt from the 20,000 square miles of seabed that have been bared since 1960, mostly on the eastern shore of the Big Sea, he said.

The main water supply for the Big Sea was the Amu Darya, Central Asia's other great river, which once supplied the Aral with more than twice the inflow of the Syr Darya. But today no water from the Amu Darya reaches the sea.

In an interview from Tashkent, the head of the Uzbek office of Doctors Without Borders, Robert Mehrengs, said the people of the Amu Darya Delta, the Karakalpaks, had taken a similar approach to the World Bank project and were building, with international help, low dikes to create three small lakes fed by the river and a canal.

"The first lake is finished and the wildlife has returned," Mr. Mehrengs said.

According to Dr. Robert Jellison, a specialist in salt lakes at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, increasing irrigation is drying up salt lakes around the world.

"Here in California," Dr. Jellison said in a telephone interview, "it's happening to the Salton Sea and to the Walker and Owens Lakes.

"The North Aral dike project is the biggest of its kind, and it makes me hope that we'll save at least parts of these fascinating ecosystems."

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