The region hardest hit is Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in north-west Uzbekistan. Infant mortality in the region has reached 110 deaths for every 1000 births, one of the highest in he world. Almost 80 percent of women in the area suffer from anaemia. Losses in the agricultural and fishery sectors caused by the environmental damage are estimated at over $600 million annually. Economic chaos, acting in combination with a 3 percent annual increase of the local population, has brought about an increase in crime rates, environmental migration and social and ethnic tensions.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union., regional efforts to address the Aral Sea crisis have met with little success. After the Central Asian nations gained independence in 1991, the region's ministers for water created an Interstate Commission for Water Co-ordination (ICWC) that was to be responsible for water allocation throughout Central Asia. In 1992, with the involvement of the World Bank and other international organisations, the five republics signed an agreement to ensure the delivery of water to the Aral Sea and its deltas, at the same time establishing an Interstate Council for the Aral Sea Basin problems (ICAS) that was charged with implenting the agreement. In 1994, the Interstate Council set up an International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS), in which each country was called upon to contribute 1 percent of its GNP. Despite such formal arrangements, however, little action was taken and few funds were allocated for the protection of the Aral Sea.
Menawhile, international efforts in recent years have largely focused on reversing the ecological damage caused by excessive irrigation. In August 1997, the World Bank initiated a program on environmental management in the Aral Sea region. The project -- financed by various international bodies, European states and the five central Asian republics is designed to run through to the beginning of 2001. So far, however, the World Bank initiative has not produced the desired results, in large part because of a lack of participation and coordination on the part of the Central Asian States. Numerous conferences have been convened to explore solutions to health and environmental problems associated with the Aral Sea. But attempts to forge consensus have tended to stumble over the inability of the Central Asian states to cooperate. Such consensus will likely prove elusive as long as the economies of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain heavily dependent on cotton production.
International community efforts have had a tangible impact in improving water supply systems, enhancing health conditions, and, to a limited degree, creating new economic opportunities. Such programs have helped ease the situation, but some local experts contend that the initiatives cannot promote long term solutions. For example, Ubbinlayz Ashirbekkov, the director of the International Fund for the Aral Sea indicated: "In 1998, 1 trillion cubic metres reached the Aral Sea, an increase from the previous years...Last year we had a lot of water, but of course it will do nothing to solve the problem."
Given the lack of regional cooperation, there is a risk that Aral Sea rescue efforts could become caught up in an infinite loop of ineffectiveness. Already, some worry that it is too late to save the sea. One regional-based World Bank representative, Werner Roider, said: "For the Aral Sea to return, they [the 5 central Asian republics] will have to stop all irrigation for 10 years. People will die upstream just to refill the sea. What is the value of that?"
Perhaps the last, best hope for the Aral Sea is to concentrate international aid efforts on regional economic development. In particular, economic diversification might facilitate regional cooperation on water management and health issues. Editor's Note: Daphne Biliouri is an independent consultant and policy analyst based in the United Kingdom. She specializes on global environmental issues and policy development in Europe and Central Asia. She recently finished a lectureship at the Department of International Relations, American University in Kyrgyzstan.