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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Hazy future for world's dying seas
The Aral Sea
Inland seas like the Aral are disappearing
Pollution and over-extraction of water are threatening the very existence of two inland seas, the Middle East's Dead Sea and the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

The development of national and international efforts to halt their decline and put in place programmes for regeneration are being hampered by political rivalries and conflict.

On 6 October four Central Asian leaders appealed for help to save the Aral Sea, and on 9 October a conference involving Israel, Jordan and the European Union opens on the shores of the Dead Sea to explore ways of preventing further water loss.

But the extent of the water level shrinkage already in the two seas suggests that decline will continue while politicians argue over national interests.

Aral alarm

The presidents of Aral Sea littoral states Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, along with their Kyrgyz and Tajik neighbours, have announced plans for an international donors' conference in Tokyo next year. The purpose is to raise funds to halt its disappearance and the damage being done to the surrounding areas.

Fifty years ago, it was the world's fourth largest inland sea. It is now the sixth.

Amu Darya river
The Amu Darya is no longer the Mississippi of Central Asia

The water volume has fallen to such an extent that it covers just 25% of its former area.

The decline was caused over the last 40 years by the USSR's diversion of the rivers which feed the sea, leaving areas of arid, salt-laden dust that then pollute large areas of Central Asia bordering the sea.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union more or less stopped the flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers into the sea by diverting them to irrigate cotton crops.

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) has warned that without concerted action the Aral Sea could disappear completely by 2020.

Dried out sea-bed
Cows graze on what used to be the sea floor
Already, the decline has destroyed the region's fishing industry, damaged agriculture and caused an exodus of people whose livelihood depended on the seas.

Unep says that every day 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand from the uncovered sea bed are carried by the wind and dumped on farmland within a 300 km radius of the sea.

This salt pollution is destroying pastures for livestock, poisoning arable land and causing severe health problems for the rural population.

The solution, according to UN agencies, is for the littoral states to cut the volume of water they take from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.

Better Red than Dead

The Dead Sea, bordered by Israel, Jordan and territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority, is situated at the lowest point on earth (400 metres below sea level) and is the world's saltiest body of water.

Like the Aral Sea, its levels have been dropping dramatically because of the increasing take-off for agriculture and drinking water.

The sea is supplied by the River Jordan, but Israel and Jordan divert 90% of the flow.

Satellite measurements by the European Space Agency between 1992 and 1999 showed falling water levels and subsidence of the whole Dead Sea region.

Shrinking Dead Sea
Diversion is reducing water levels

Environmental group Friends of the Earth warned that the sea could disappear in the next 50 years if water diversion is not reduced.

Israel and Jordan announced on 1 September at the Johannesburg Earth Summit that they were working on a $1bn joint project to pipe water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea.

This scheme has replaced an earlier Israeli plan for a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, which did not have the backing of neighbouring countries.

Water resources have been the subject of fierce controversy in a region where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and endemic hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbours have consistently obstructed joint efforts to deal with the future of water usage.

The new plan would pipe water to the Dead Sea, using the drop in altitude to generate hydropower. Increased water availability could cater for local needs without diverting more of the Jordan's waters.

See also:

02 Sep 02 | Middle East
28 Aug 02 | Africa
18 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
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