Environmental experts have rung the death knell for the Aral Sea in Central Asia.
The world's fourth largest lake in 1960, the Aral Sea has already shrunk to half its former size-a result of unsustainable cotton cultivation that began less than 40 years ago. But though the sea itself can no longer be saved, its toxic salt plains have paradoxically given rise to a new spirit in the region.
The Aral Sea is only the epicentre of the "tragedy", as Central Asians commonly refer to this legacy of environmental misuse; the damage has also consumed thousands of surrounding square kilometers. Called "the most staggering disaster of the twentieth century" by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Aral Sea basin intersects all five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - which lie in a 690,000-square-kilometer landlocked zone.
The 3.5 million people who live in the region have seen their health, jobs and living conditions literally go down the drain. The once thriving fishing and canning industry has evaporated, replaced by anemia, high infant and maternal mortality, and debilitating respiratory and intestinal ailments.
Yet, in the face of such devastation, sea changes of another nature have begun-ones in which the United Nations has played a leading and positive role. Central Asian leaders who, following the independence of their republics from the former Soviet Union in 1991, had been locked in competition over scarce resources, have begun to cooperate as they struggle to address the region's enormous water crisis and environmental problems. And local people, who refer to the salt deposits left in the dusty seabed as "the dry tears of the Aral", have begun to feel a bit more hopeful.
Khalid Malik, Director of the Evaluation Office at UNDP in New York, ran the United Nations programmes in Uzbekistan from 1992 until the beginning of this year and offered his assessment of the situation. When he first arrived in Tashkent, he said tensions were building up among the newly independent Central Asian republics over the water issue. But since that time, Mr. Malik feels that considerable progress has been achieved.
The seeds of the Aral Sea basin water crisis were planted in 1959 when the Soviet Union picked Central Asia to serve as its cotton supplier.
Though cotton had been grown in Central Asia before, the scale and intensity of the Soviet plan were unique, and the Aral Sea's feeder rivers - Syr Darya and Amu Darya-were harnessed to provide the vast amounts of water needed to float this project.
By 1980 - just over 20 years later - Central Asia's production quotas reached 9 million tonnes, making it the world's fourth largest producer of cotton.
But the Aral Sea paid the price for this success. As its volume precipitously dropped, the Aral's waters turned toxic for fish and wildlife - not to mention human-populations that depended on them. The soil around the sea has become more saline as well. In order to prepare fields for cultivation, which are mostly desert lands, farmers must first leach or rinse them, which brings salty minerals to the surface. Moreover, as a result of the increased soil salinity, cotton harvests began to diminish.
Aksoltan Ataeva, Turkmenistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, describes the sea change that took place. "The lake was used for fishing and we could see sailing and fishing boats", she says. "Now, we still can see them, but they are stuck in the sands."
The United Nations has sought to address both the causes and the effects of the crisis in the Aral Sea basin, and primary among the approaches is water management. As long as humans have lived in Central Asia, dry air and water scarcity have been simple facts of life. Traditionally, mirabs, or water masters, controlled the water resources in Central Asia and ensured that water allocations corresponded to farmers' needs.
Reflected in a local proverb is the reverence with which water was once regarded: "In every drop of water there is a grain of gold." But under the Soviet system, water policies were driven by the goal of...