Waters rising in the Northern Aral Sea

5 Jul 2024 by The Water Diplomat

In January 2024, Kazakhstan took over the 3-year presidency of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), a sea considered lost until a few years ago.

As is the case in other parts of the world, the Aral Sea, in addition to having been the victim of overexploitation of water resources in upstream areas, is also seriously affected by the effects of climate change. During the second half of the twentieth century, the glacial resources of Central Asia declined to less than a third of the original volume, and they continue to decline by an average of 0,6% to 0,8% per year. In terms of the water footprint of agriculture, Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan) is the world's most water-intensive region, with an annual water utilisation of 11,800 m3 per hectare. However, according to experts, only 30% is used effectively for irrigation, with large losses occuring as a result of ageing infrastructure and inefficient agricultural techniques.

The Aral Sea is fed mainly by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. By 2050, the flow of the Syr Darya is set to fall by 15 to 30%, and that of the Amu Darya by 21 to 40%, while demand for water in the region is increasing by 1% per year. Per capita water availability fell from 8,000 m3 per inhabitant in 1960 to 2,000 m3 per inhabitant in 2000. Over the course of the twentieth century, the glacial resources of Central Asia, which feed the two basins and subsequently the Aral Sea, were reduced by a third.

More than ever, cooperation between these different countries on the water issue is therefore important, and could even, according to a study entitled "Rethinking water in Central Asia", generate US$4.5 billion in economic spin-offs if it were rethought.

This cooperation is beginning to bear fruit through the Aral Sea Basin Program, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea and the 2022-2024 Roadmap for Regional Cooperation. Already in 2023, thanks in particular to the completion of the Kokaral dam which separates the northern and southern basins of the Aral Sea, efforts are beginning to pay off. The volume of water in the northern section  has increased by 1.1 billion m³, to a total of 21.4 billion m³. The member states have agreed to continue this trend by allocating a further 997 million m³ during 2024.

Before taking over the presidency of IFAS at a meeting of the organization in Dushanbe in September 2023, the President of Kazakstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, had stated : "IFAS has become the most important institution facilitating regional cooperation on transboundary water resource sharing issues", and went on to set out his ambitions for the future presidency, including "the need to create a long-term and sustainable cooperation mechanism for the efficient use of water and energy resources in Central Asia, taking into account the interests of all countries in the region". The President added in his speech that "a work plan should be put in place that would introduce a unified automated system for accounting, monitoring, management and distribution of water resources in the Aral Sea".

Yerbolat Pernekhan, Head of the Water Cooperation Department for Central Asia at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, also , spoke to the press on this subject, stating that his country would prioritise constructive cooperation on comprehensive water resource management, ecology, the SDGs, socio-economic aspects and green economy initiatives in Central Asia; to specify that "to achieve these objectives, efforts will be focused on strengthening the organizational structure and legal framework of IFAS, implementing the Action Program for the Aral Sea Basin Countries 2020-2030 and creating a sustainable regional cooperation mechanism for the efficient management of water and energy resources".

2024 will see the launch for IFAS of the 2nd phase of the World Bank-supported RRSSAM-2 project, which will include the construction of the Kok Saray counter-regulator to improve water resource management in the Kazakh part of the Syr Darya river basin. Thanks to this project, the volume of water in the northern part should increase by 5 km³.