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Ships of the desert;The Big Picture

(Photograph) - The Aral Sea is shrinking. Scarcely more than 14,000 square miles of water remain, so the camel has the advantage over the trawler on the dry sea bed. Bordered on the south by two deserts, the Kara Kum and the Kyzyl Kum, the Aral is really a terminal lake for two rivers from the snow-clad mountains to its east and south-east. Until the 1950s its 26,000 square miles formed the world's fourth largest inland sea.

Then Soviet leaders made some fateful decisions to bend nature to their will. The Amu Dar'ya river was dammed to irrigate the Kara Kum and grow cotton, and the Syr Dar'ya was dammed in the 1970s. Water ceased to reach the Aral. Yet the five countries which border the sea all depend on its water to cultivate crops: rice and cotton in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; cotton and Astrakhan sheep in Turkmenistan; cotton, hydropower and processing industries in Tajikistan; fodder and cattle in Kyrgyzstan. What will become of these countries as the sea evaporates?

Will they be stranded like the boat in the picture? Already increasing salination and agrochemcial pollution in the lakes of run-off water, in the fields and in frequent sandstorms are threatening the fertility of the irrigated soil. Groundwater is contaminated; health is poor.

Despite the degradation of the Aral Sea climate and ecosystem, massive irrigation projects such as the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River in China continue to be built. World powers favour the short-term benefits of cash crops, and hydroelectric power over fragile ecosystems. But, as the sea shrinks, so the climate changes. Soon the Aral basin may not sustain cotton-farming. Does the Aral Sea represent a doomsday scenario for the rest of the world? Water use is growing at twice the rate of the world's population; a recent report from the UN estimates that by 2025 two-thirds of developing countries will suffer moderate to severe water shortage. Without water there is no life, never mind crops. How long until the first water war?


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