Wednesday, July 27, 2011


In the mid 1990's I was traveling in the Kyzyl Kum desert in Kazakhstan, near the Syr Darya River.  The great rivers of the Syr and Amu Darya are the main flows to the Aral Sea, and back then it was already clear that the Aral Sea was going to dry up unless something was done about the diversion of waters for irrigation.  The stakes were high.  It seemed that there were two choices: on the one hand an ancient inland sea with its own industries and fisheries and marine ecologies, representing a unique oasis in the arid heart of Eurasia -- on the other hand, the death of all that, the creation of a vast moonscape of pesticide-laden salt flats, internal migration, and the desert cotton industry could limp along for another generation.

As I looked at the Soviet era irrigation conduits -- open, crumbling, leaking troughs of weathered concrete, spilling every other drop out onto the muddy dust --  it was clear that there was a third option.   Cotton could be grown at a scale that allowed a flow into the Sea, or crops less thirsty than cotton could be grown in this desert.  But even if the economic and bureaucratic inertia were too much for those sensible changes, conduits could be patched, less water could be spilled, less left open to the thirsty desert air.  Not only was it not necessary to destroy the Aral Sea, the destruction would be a huge and pointless stupidity in no one's real interest.

This filled me with a sense of optimism that the crisis could and would be averted.

But of course, we did destroy the Aral Sea -- we sacrificed it on the altar of the status quo.

Today, I hear people say that our accumulating problems of climate instability, energy decline, overpopulation and resource depletion can be solved with some common sensical adaptations - no problem, when the time comes - before things really go to Hell.  Yes, I think, just like the old Aral Sea.

Photo NASA