conservation environment

From sea to desert to forest

Last week I wrote about how Kazakhstan saved and restored the northern part of the Aral Sea. It did this by damming that part of the lake and essentially separating it from the larger basin. But what about that dry sandy expanse to the south, the Aralkum Desert?

The fate of the north and south parts of the Aral sea have gone in opposite directions. The north is in recovery. The south gets some spillover from the dam and seasonal flooding, but otherwise remains desert. The main river that flows into the south is still diverted into Uzbekistan’s cotton production, and cotton is the country’s primary export. That is unlikely to change any time soon, and so there is little prospect of the wider Aral Sea being replenished.

In fact, the loss of the body of water has changed the climate in the region, reducing rainfall, raising temperatures and increasing evaporation. It’s an uphill struggle, and the overall ecosystem may be beyond repair. “You can no longer talk about saving the Aral Sea, really,” says Professor Sagit Ibatullin, who once chaired an international cooperation effort to do just that. “It would not be correct.”

For the Southern Aral Sea then, the question may not be how to bring back what used to be there. It may be to ask what could be done instead.

And there’s no question that something has to be done. At the moment the area is downright dangerous. As the lake shrank, it got saltier and more polluted with run-off from the farms upstream. Those pollutants were left behind when the water evaporated, leaving a vast pan of toxic sand. The wind whips this up, creating poisonous sandstorms that are becoming more frequent because of climate change. Rates of cancer and respiratory illness are higher among local residents that elsewhere in Uzbekistan. Infant mortality rates are double the national average, creating an inter-generational injustice.

In a twist of fate, the largest of these sandstorms can pick up the pollution from the lake bed, shift it hundreds of miles and drop it back on the cotton plantations where it came from. The upstream regions that gained financially from draining the lake for irrigation might not have got away with it after all, as they deal with soil pollution and falling yields.

In fact, the Aralkum desert has an impact well beyond Central Asia. It’s estimated that 75 million tonnes of dust and toxic salts are lifted from the lake pan every year, and they have been found as far away as the Arctic.

The government of Uzbekistan, working with the UNDP, has a plan. In 2014 they started planting a common central Asian shrub called Saxaul. It’s sand-growing and puts down deep roots to draw up water. It’s salt-tolerant and is even pollinated by wind, so it’s got a good chance of survival. If anything can grow here, it’s the Saxaul, a tree that even looks long-suffering.

As these low-growing trees take root, they will fix the soil and prevent the wind from picking up the dust. In time, the patient work of these hardy plants might prepare the ground for wider regeneration, working around existing and potential smaller lakes in the lake bed. Perhaps, eventually, the area could see the return of long-lost species such as the critically endangered Asiatic Cheetah. In the meantime, it will be locking up carbon. If enough trees take root, perhaps it can begin to change the microclimate in the area too, increasing rainfall and pushing back the risk of further desertification.

So far the planting scheme has worked its way through half a million hectares, planting every ten metres. There are another three million hectares to go if the whole lake bed is to be turned into forest, which is ultimately the plan. It’s a long term ambition, one that may take well over a century to come to fruition.

50 years ago the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. Today it is the world’s newest desert. In 50 years time it could be a forest.

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