The disappearing Aral Sea

The destruction of the Aral Sea is a well-known example of unsustainable development. Atlases used to describe the sea as the world's fourth largest lake, with an area of 66,000 square kilometres and a volume of more than 1,000 cubic kilometres. Its waters supplied local fisheries with annual catches of 40,000 tons and the deltas of its tributaries hosted dozens of smaller lakes and biologically rich marshes and wetlands covering 550,000 hectares.

In the 1960s, planners in the former Soviet Union gave Central Asia the role of supplier of raw cotton. Irrigation was imperative, and the Aral Sea and its tributaries seemed a limitless source of water. Irrigated land was expanded from about 4.5 million hectares in 1960 to almost 7 million hectares in 1980. The local population also grew rapidly, from 14 million to about 27 million in the same period. Water withdrawal almost doubled to an annual 120 cubic kilometres, more than 90 percent of it for agriculture.

The result was the collage of the prevailing water balance in the basin. Waterlogging and salinization eventually affected about 40 percent of irrigated land. Overuse of pesticides and fertilizer polluted surface water and groundwater, and the delta ecosystems disappeared: by 1990 more than 95 percent of the marshes and wetlands had given way to sand deserts and more than 50 delta lakes, covering 60,000 hectares, had dried up.

The surface of the Aral Sea shrank by one-half and its volume by three-quarters. The mineral content of the water has increased fourfold and most of the sea's fish and wildlife have died. Commercial fishing ended in 1982. Former seashore villages and towns are now 70 kilometres from the present shoreline.

Communities face appalling health problems. In Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, drinking water is saline and polluted, with a high content of metals that causes a range of diseases. Over the past 15 years there has been a thirty-fold increase in chronic bronchitis and in kidney and liver diseases, especially cancer and arthritic diseases have increased sixty-fold. The infant mortality rate is one of the world's highest.

Five newly independent Central Asian states are jointly working on innovative solutions through the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). Focus is currently on demand management, such as through reducing water withdrawal by raising irrigation efficiency. While new approaches are being used to manage the Aral Sea Basin, increased water use in Afghanistan is anticipated to encourage the Central Asian states to revitalize old Soviet plans to divert water from northward-flowing rivers in Siberia toward Central Asia (1).

Modified from
Time to Save the Aral Sea?
Agriculture 21, FAO, 1998 in UNEP,
Global Environmental Outlook 3, 2002.

1. Glantz Michael, Water, Climate and Development Issues in the Amudarya Basin, Report from the Informal Planning Meeting, Philadelphia, 18- 19 June 2002.

Rough seas for Mauritania's fish

There is an acute need for safeguards before foreign fleets are allowed into developing countries waters. UNEP has found that these countries which open up their waters to foreign fishing fleets may lose more than they gain.
by Anja Jaenz

A UNEP case study on Mauritania revealed that trade liberalization led to increased octopus and shrimp exports to European and Japanese markets. The fishing sector accounted
for around 54 percent of foreign exchange inflows. But increased trade and over-fishing have depleted octopus and serranid stocks, which have significantly fallen in 15 years, and sawfish have disappeared. Local direct employment in the artisanal octopus fishery dropped from nearly 5,000 to 1,800 between 1996 and 2001.

The study shows that international fishing agreements is one of the primary causes. For instance in the shrimps fishery, these agreements have given foreign fleets the possibility of
using more productive equipment (smaller mesh size) and have created competitive pressures on Mauritanian producers. The study concludes that strict safeguards must be in place before fishing activities are increased. There is an acute need for tighter controls on subsidies and agreements that provide access to foreign fleets as well as for closer monitoring and enforcement of existing regulations.

Other UNEP country studies, including Senegal and Argentina, also indicate that the eventual costs, in terms of loss of income for local fishermen, environmental damage and the depletion of native fish stocks, can far outweigh the short term financial gains generated from foreign governments and fleets.

Anja Jaenz
UNEP, Geneva

1. Effets environnementaux de la libéralisation du commerce et des measures liées au commerce dans le secteur de la pêche en République Islamique de Mauritanie, Draft, UNEP, February 2002.

2. Well Managed Fisheries Vital for Environmentally Friendly Development in Poor Parts of the Globe, UNEP, Press Release 15 March 2002.

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