(Cairns... Far North Queensland)
AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS
Russia - Reviving Massive River Diversion Plan
scientists are reviving an old Soviet plan to divert some of Siberia's mightiest
rivers to the parched former Soviet republics of central Asia.
backers say it will solve a growing water crisis in the region and replenish the
now desiccated Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest inland sea. The $40
billion scheme could also gain international support.
increases in the flows of Siberia's rivers have raised fears that a less salty
Arctic Ocean could shut down the Gulf Stream and trigger icy winters across
Europe. Diverting part of the flow of the rivers could prevent that.
some experts say that the hugely ambitious scheme will cause social, economic
and environmental disaster.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s rejected the mega-project. But
in recent months it has won vocal support. Backers include Moscow's mayor, Yuri
Luzhkov, a possible successor to Vladimir Putin as Russian president, alongside
central Asian leaders and a growing number of Russian scientists. One of the
country's senior environmental scientists has resumed research on the project.
the Amudarya and Syrdarya, which once had combined flows greater than that of
the Nile, have been largely emptied by massive irrigation projects to grow the
cotton. As the rivers died, so has the Aral Sea into which they drain. It has
lost three-quarters of its water since 1960, leaving former ports up to 150
kilometres from the receding shoreline, and a salty wilderness where the sea
used to be.
Dilapidated and inefficient
irrigation canals in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have become increasingly
dilapidated and inefficient. Few of the region's 50,000 kilometres of irrigation
channels are sealed, so much of their water goes to waste. According to a World
Bank study, some 60 per cent of water intended for farms does not reach the
years ago, while on a visit to Putin in Moscow, Uzbekistan's president, Islam
Karimov, revived the idea of diverting Siberian rivers. "Although it seems
ambitious, it appears to be the only tangible solution to the ecological and
other problems caused by the drying of the Aral Sea," says Abdukhalil
Razzakov of the Tashkent State Economic University in Uzbekistan.
after more than a decade without discussion of the project in Russia, it is back
on the table. Igor Zonn, director of Soyuzvod project, a Russian government
agency in charge of water management and ecology, stated, "We are beginning
to revise the old project plans for the diversion of Siberian rivers. The old
material has to be gathered from more than 300 institutes."
January 2004, Luzhkov visited Kazakhstan to promote the plan. He says that
central Asia would have to pay for the water, but behind the scenes Moscow sees
the scheme as a way to rebuild its political and economic power in the region.
It also wants to avoid a collapse of its southern neighbours' economies, which
could send a flood of ecological refugees towards Russia. One-fifth of the
population of the Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan has emigrated since 1990.
as in the 1980s, the scheme will be hugely controversial in Russia. The chairman
of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nikolai Dobretsov,
has said that the diversion "would threaten the Ob basin with
eco-catastrophe and socio-economic disaster", destroying fisheries and
upsetting the local climate.
environmentalists support the scheme as a means to revive the Aral Sea. But Oleg
Vasilyev, a former head of the Institute of Water and Ecology Problems, part of
the Russian Academy of Sciences, who backs the plan, says the water should be
used primarily for irrigation, and so would never reach the Aral.
Asia now faces a choice; begin massive reforms that will allow a more efficient
use of water and less reliance on thirsty crops like cotton, or buy in water
from outside. Nikita Glazovsky, a leading Russian geographer and former deputy
environment minister under Boris Yeltsin, says the region's engineers
"still find it easier to divert rivers than to stop inefficient
irrigation". And reform has so far proved beyond the leaders of central
Asia, whose methods of government have changed little since Soviet times.
Russia pursues the plan, the global ecological repercussions are bound to loom
large. In the 1980s, western scientists feared that reducing the flows of
north-flowing Siberian rivers would damage the Arctic ice cap and upset global
the tables have turned, and the worry is more about the increasing flow caused
by global warming. The Ob and nearby rivers pour seven per cent more fresh water
into the Arctic Ocean than 70 years ago, and climate models indicate that flows
could rise by up to 80 per cent by the end of the century.
arrival of such large volumes of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean could lead to
a sudden breakdown of a global ocean circulation system that ultimately drives
the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe warm in winter. Such a breakdown could leave
Europe facing a new ice age as the rest of the planet warms.
on the diversion project is unlikely to begin soon, and it faces many financial,
political, ecological, and design hurdles. But a project on this vast scale no
longer seems unthinkable. China's south-north project to take water from the
Yangtze River to the parched Yellow river is as large and expensive, and is
observers believe that Putin might like to leave the canal as a lasting symbol
of his Presidency. According to Victor Brovkin, a Russian expert in climate
modelling, now at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany,
"If Putin wants to respond to Bush's plan to go to Mars, this might be
Written and Authorised by Selwyn Johnston, Cairns FNQ 4870 Australia