The Aral Sea and a Reforming Uzbekistan

BY AUSTEN DOWELL

While other man-made disasters like the Chernobyl meltdown or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill often command greater name-recognition, the slow death of the Aral Sea is undoubtedly one of history’s most heartbreaking instances of human hubris and ignorance. However, the Mirziyoyev administration’s “Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy for 2017-2021”[1] may represent the start of a new era for the desiccated lake. The document provides the road map for how Uzbekistan’s attempts to kick-start its moribund domestic economy and repair relations with its neighbors stand to help combat the effects of the regional tragedy.

Over the early and mid 1900s, Soviet policy-makers undertook the major process of diverting the two major feeder-rivers of the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, in order to help provide irrigation in the region for the growing of foodstuffs and cotton (the “white gold” of the era). A brief summary of losses makes for sobering reading: by 2007, the sea was only 10% of its original size, with 95% of nearby wetlands and reservoirs reduced to deserts. This desertification process has in turn thrown up saline sand as far as 200 km away, while maternity and infant mortality rates along with cancer rates in the regions surrounding the sea have climbed precipitously. While the five countries of Central Asia did pledge to help address the issue by forming The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea in 1992 (pledging to address the consequences of the crisis while improving communication regarding resource managed), the ecological disruption caused by the crisis has always been intertwined with the jockeying for water-resources.

In keeping with Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy (UDS) subsets “3.2. Improving the competitiveness of the economy through deepening of structural reforms, modernization and diversification of its leading industries,” and “3.3. Modernization and intensive development of agriculture,” the Uzbek government has overseen the passage of a $2.6 billion Aral Sea Region Development Fund (2017) aimed at developing — among other things — the region’s infrastructure, living conditions, and tourism and investment attractiveness. Rather than being linked to some romantic commitment to the lake’s history, UDS directly calls for mitigating the “negative impact of the drying of the Aral Sea to the development of agriculture and the livelihoods of people.” With agriculture still vitally important to Uzbekistan’s economy, mismanagement of water resources still represents a looming danger to economic reform. Funds and attention are meant to target long-overdue aid for impacted populations, while helping wean the industry off of wasteful, destructive practices.

A long history of Uzbek water-mismanagement has aggravated relations with its upstream neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but it seems that President Mirziyoyev is willing to actively confront the issue in the international arena as well. With a priority area in the UDS articulated as “5.2 the implementation of balanced, mutually beneficial and constructive foreign policy,”  the President’s address to the IFSAS summit in 2018, in which he stated, “I am convinced that we will be able to achieve a balance of interests of all countries of the region within the organization, because it is our common future which is at stake,” depicts a new willingness to cooperate within the context of international coalitions. This push for international attention and investment has resulted in the creation of the International Innovation Center of the Aral Sea Region in Karakalpakstan (2018), aimed at attracting grants from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank among others for scientific research on combating the effects of the disaster.

International cooperation is not just aimed at repairing relations with neighbors, but at attracting investment and tourism from beyond the region. The newly inaugurated “Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Human Security for the Aral Sea Region” (2018) was introduced under the aegis of the UN, and has already been given 6 million dollars (out of an expected 125 million) in an ambitious package of at least 19 projects aimed at improving all facets of the ecology and inhabited areas around the Sea. The spending package was not limited to medical treatment, but included provisions for creating jobs and improving transport and communications infrastructure. With Uzbekistan attempting to become a regional transportation hub and rapidly upgrade its tourism industry, such international programs address multiple goals.

Uzbekistan’s raft of promised reforms since 2016 have revolved around improving the domestic economy and relationships with its neighbors. Both of these goals align when it comes to the Aral Sea, a slam-dunk for reform that can simultaneously demonstrate cooperative regional decision-making, help reform unsustainable water-management practices, and improve the health and economic outlook of populations impacted by the tragedy.


[1] A policy document signed into being in 2017, the UDS targets five priority areas and is implemented by a commission with President Mirziyoyev at its head.

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About the Author

Austen Dowell is a Research Associate with the ERA Institute’s Central Asia Watch Project.


This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).