On April 28 Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan, hosted the Summit of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. The participants discussed the collective management of Syrdarya and Amudarya resources, issues relating to marine biodiversity and fishery management, and cooperation with international organizations, financial institutions and donors.
While the participants of the summit agreed that the only issue to be discussed would be IFAS activities on saving the Aral Sea, it appeared impossible to avoid disputes over the shared use of the transborder Central Asian Syrdarya and Amudarya rivers.
The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) was established in 1993 by the five Central Asian states. The Fund has become a key tool for coordinating the joint efforts of these countries to overcome the Aral crisis, which is recognized by the international community as one of the worst environmental catastrophes of the 20th century.
IFAS finances joint actions and programs aimed at saving the Aral Sea and environmental recovery of the Aral Sea basin. Kazakhstan is currently chair of IFAS, from 2009-2011.
The Amudarya and the Syrdarya rivers originate in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and irrigate lands in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before flowing into the Aral Sea. Wasteful irrigation from these feeder rivers is causing the Aral Sea to shrink by 70 percent.
Currently, the former Aral port stands at 35 kilometers from the shore. Aral water levels have fallen to the point that the sea has split into two separate bodies of water - the Northern and the Southern Aral Seas.
The disappearing sea poses health hazards to 40 million people living in the Aral Sea basin.
UN Secretary-General's message
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent greetings to the participants of the summit.
"Climate variability poses a further challenge in this region characterized by vast areas of arid and semi-arid land. The mountain glaciers of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that feed the lake are melting at an alarming rate. By 2050, water flow in the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers could diminish by up to 40 and 30 per cent respectively," stated the UN Secretary-General.
Wherever needed, United Nations specialized agencies stand ready to provide assistance and technical expertise, said Ban Ki-moon.
Since the establishment of the IFAS, two Aral Sea basin programs have been implemented. The main objectives of the programs include stabilizing the environment of the Aral Sea basin and improving the management of land and water resources.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev informed the summit participants of the completion of the Aral Sea Phase I Project aimed at rehabilitation of the Syrdarya river and building water infrastructure to rehabilitate the Northern Aral Sea. In 2005, a 13-kilometer dike was constructed to raise the water levels.
Despite the world economic crisis, Kazakhstan is planning to continue the Aral Sea Phase II Project, which would help improve ecological situation in the region and develop the fisheries sector.
The upstream states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, strongly believe that construction of hydropower stations is needed to solve acute energy shortages in their countries.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev defended the country's hydropower plans, outlining the energy shortage problems and details of the construction of new hydropower stations Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2. Bakiyev also cited data and figures in support of his claim that the downstream states would not be affected after the construction of power stations is completed.
"The strategic issue that requires resolution is the coordination of our timetables of water release for irrigation and energy needs and compensatory fuel supplies [to Kyrgyzstan], and this is what should be the subject of international cooperation among parties interested in using water-saving technologies," Bakiev said.
Kyrgyz and Tajik plans to construct hydropower stations on the upper streams of the Amudarya and the Syrdarya rivers have divided the five countries into two camps. Downstream countries - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - suffer from water shortages and believe that the construction of hydropower stations would further reduce the flow of water on their territory.
The heads of state adopted a Joint Statement which concluded a confirmation of their interest in the development of a mutually acceptable mechanism for the overall use of water resources and the protection of the environment in Central Asia, taking into account the interests of all the region's states, reported the Kazakh Foreign Ministry's press service.
The development of a new assistance program for the population of the Aral Sea basin was delivered to the charge of the IFAS Executive Committee. The summit formed new constituent bodies of the Fund.
The presidents agreed that a donors' conference on saving the Aral Sea would be held in Kazakhstan in 2010.
BY MARIA LEVINA, TCA CORRESPONDENT