The drop that is left in the glass: the case of water security in the Aral Sea

by Phoebus Voulgaris, Member of the Foreign Affairs and International Relations Research Team

credits: erasmus roommates

Images retrieved from: World of Change: Shrinking Aral Sea and edited by the author

Introduction

Water takes up a large amount of our planet, making it easy for most people to take it for granted. However there exist some places in the world where it is vital, not as a drinking source but for their survival as an economy and by extension a society. This is the case for the countries that are situated in the Aral Sea Basin, which is located nearly 300 kilometres east of the Kaspian Sea (reference provided as it is not that well known). As they used to be mainly agricultural economies, they heavily depended on water for the irrigation of crops. These water resources were diverted from their natural path causing the Aral Sea itself to shrink. Taking into account this general reality the present effort seeks to answer the following question: is the Aral Sea relevant as regards water security?

After setting the scene and before moving on with our methodology, comes the motivation of the author. More specifically the aspect that intrigued him into writing this paper is that when it comes to water, states are typically interested in the resources residing in its depths and not in the actual water as a crucial resource. Hence, the Aral Sea Basin countries provide an interesting case study to the intricacies of the importance of water and water relations.

Methodology

The present interdisciplinary analysis, using data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation as well as the literature on the Aral Sea, will try to determine its importance to water security in the states surrounding it. More specifically, the subjects under analysis, mainly due to length constraints, will only be Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They are chosen as they are the only ones who share the actual Aral Sea and not just the Syr Darya and Amu Darya (the long rivers that stretch through all the countries of the Basin and connect with the Aral Sea).

The way forward, will include a quick history of how the so-called Aral Sea crisis came to be by an examination of its effects on water security. But before we talk about anything else we first need to construct our conceptual framework, which will be constituted by the terms: “Aral Sea”, “Basin” and “water security”. 

The first, according to Britannica, used to be “a large saline lake” in Central Asia which has gradually split into the North and the South Aral sea and two other minor lakes (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). 

The second, pertains to a depression in the Earth’s surface shaped like a bowl (National Geographic Society, n.d.). Applying that definition to our case we can see that the Aral Sea Basin includes, apart from the two states under study, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 

Finally, “water security” is viewed as the capacity to have sustainable access to water (UN-Water, n.d.). However, having only capacity seems to be a limiter to the understanding of the concept. To overcome that we shall augment our working definition splitting the concept into internal and external water security. For the former we shall make use of Falkenmark et al. and Falkenmark and Molden’s indices (Cook and Bakker, 2012), which tie our concept to water stress (how much is withdrawn from the total water resources) and water shortages (how many people have to share x amount of water). For the latter, we shall examine the nexus of cooperation and competition in the area, with the existence of disputes and initiatives around the matter serving as an indicator of its importance. Concluding our plan of action we stress that this conceptualization will be vital for our analysis, as it will provide us with the tools to work through our data.

History of the Aral Sea Basin

In order to understand the issue today we need to go back in time to see its origins. For the states in the area, agriculture and mainly cotton production have been vital to their economies, with some people even going as far as calling the latter “white gold”. Traditional societies used a system of crop rotation to maintain the balance of the ecosystem. However, when the area came under Russian and later Soviet control the balance was broken since their administration pushed for a monoculture with many negative consequences, one of the most important ones being the gradual shrinking of the Aral Sea, resulting from the diversion and overdraining of the water of the rivers supporting it for irrigation purposes. Nonetheless, the Soviets were not blind as they quickly realised the environmental problems that could be created. However, they only took action in the late 1980s by which time they had lost their power to implement any programme effectively. Since the independence of the states of the Aral Sea basin, especially in the 1990s and the 2000s, there was a great discourse regarding the Aral Sea Crisis – in essence the exponential shrinking of the Aral sea – that amounted to many scientific papers, national agendas and transnational initiatives and funds to help the area recover.

Internal Water Security: Water Stress

When it comes to indicators, as described in our methodology we will focus on water stress and water shortage using FAO data granting us a picture of the change in the duration of three decades using the years 1997, 2007 and 2017 as points of reference

As regards water stress the main variables we will use are Total Water Withdrawal and Total Renewable Water Resources. In practice, in Kazakhstan Total water withdrawal seems to have dropped from 1997 to 2007 and risen again in 2017. At the same time, the Total Renewable Water Resources remain largely the same, with no differences between 1997, 2007 and 2017. This is natural, since despite the fact that the Aral Sea is shrinking that does not mean that the water it used to have has disappeared. Rather, it is just diverted before it reaches the Sea and used for human activities.

In the case of Uzbekistan a trend almost identical to Kazakhstan is prevalent. Total Water withdrawal witnessed a fall from 1997 to 2007 and a rise close to 1997 levels in 2017. In all that time the Total Renewable Water Resources remained the same.

As a result when it comes to water stress, the withdrawal of water seems to be increasing again after a period of decrease, increasing the possible danger to water security, especially in the case of Uzbekistan since it is withdrawing considerably more water than its Total Renewable Water resources.

Internal Water Security: Water shortage

And so we turn to our second indicator, water shortage, which presents some interesting findings. In both countries the total water resources as discussed above remain stable but the population is rising resulting in less available water per capita for all human activities. To be more precise, Total Renewable Water Resources per capita in Kazakhstan have had an almost steady decline. Meanwhile, the same trend can be recognised in the case of Uzbekistan’s Total Renewable Water Resources per capita as it has slumped consistently from 1997 to 2017. From that we can surmise that water is becoming more scarce as the population is increasing in the two countries, with Uzbekistan being in worse condition than Kazakhstan since it has less water resources to begin with.

Internal Water Security Results

From the above it becomes clear that while Kazakhstan seems to be in a relatively good condition as regards water security, in contrast to Uzbekistan which is somehow withdrawing way more water than its renewable resources, there seems to be a positive trend in water withdrawal which could be a possible security concern. Nevertheless, the change in the Aral Sea does not seem to have affected the total renewable water resources of the two countries under study. Thus, as regards internal water security, the Aral Sea is not directly relevant. Despite that however, its shrinking is the cause of environmental problems that could constitute security concerns. To be more specific Thomson outlines the main consequences of that process as being among others desertification and dust winds (Thomson, 2008) which could negatively affect the future of agriculture and the population’s health respectively. 

External Water Security: Cooperation and Competition

As indicated in the methodology we also have to take into account water security shaped by external relations and the role of the Aral Sea in it. First of all, a preliminary indicator pointing to the significance of water relations is the fact that even at an internal level the states in the area have specialised ministries presiding over matters of water resources (Republic of Uzbekistan, n.d., Republic of Kazakhstan, n.d.). Moreover since after the end of the Cold War there have arisen multiple fora, initiatives, funds and agreements on managing water relations in the area. Some examples are the Interstate Council addressing the Aral Sea, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination, two Basin Valley Organisations (one for each for the two rivers), the International Fund for the Aral Sea and the Almaty agreement. These initiatives promote dialogue on water resources management and sharing and lead to decisions which are funded and implemented and are also geared towards restoring the Aral Sea. Nevertheless, in practice  there also seems to be a trend where the regional balance is maintained through hegemonic and anti-hegemonic tendencies in water matters. This can be seen from examples such as Kazakhstan holding Uzbekistan accountable for controlling the flow of the Syr Darya river and Uzbekistan exchanging its electric energy with water from Tajikistan and creating tensions by not keeping its end of the bargain (Chatterjee et al, 2013).

External Water Security Results

From the above it is evident that cooperation and competition in the field of water security as regards external relations is really important for the states of the Aral Sea. Nonetheless, the Aral Sea is but one part of their complex relations and thus its importance to their external water security can only be regarded as partial.

Conclusions

It thus becomes clear that the ever-shrinking sea is only partly relevant to the water security of the states in its Basin. When it comes to internal water security its role is only indirect, influencing the environment in ways that can harm the states’ economies and health. At the same time, as regards external water security, a, barely touched upon by the present analysis, intricate nexus of water relations pertains only partially to the Aral Sea. Finally, the main takeaway from this analysis is that resources come in many shapes and forms, international relations become ever more complicated when states have to share power and that it is not uncommon for “bad habits” creating problems to the region to reappear after a period of systematic efforts to resolve them when they are tied to the state interests.

References

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Wang X., Chen Y., Li Z., Fang G., Wang F., Liu H. (2020). “The impact of climate change and human activities on the Aral Sea Basin over the past 50 years”. Atmospheric Research, Volume 245. Available here


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