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Selwyn Johnston

INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY REPRESENTATIVES'

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(Cairns... Far North Queensland)

 

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Sincerely,

Selwyn Johnston

 

One person, with the support of the community, can make a difference

 

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WATER

AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS

 

Russia - Reviving Massive River Diversion Plan

Russian scientists are reviving an old Soviet plan to divert some of Siberia's mightiest rivers to the parched former Soviet republics of central Asia. 

Its backers say it will solve a growing water crisis in the region and replenish the now desiccated Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest inland sea. The $40 billion scheme could also gain international support. 

Recent increases in the flows of Siberia's rivers have raised fears that a less salty Arctic Ocean could shut down the Gulf Stream and trigger icy winters across Europe. Diverting part of the flow of the rivers could prevent that. 

But some experts say that the hugely ambitious scheme will cause social, economic and environmental disaster. 

The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s rejected the mega-project. But in recent months it has won vocal support. Backers include Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a possible successor to Vladimir Putin as Russian president, alongside central Asian leaders and a growing number of Russian scientists. One of the country's senior environmental scientists has resumed research on the project. 

Thirsty Crop

The proposed scheme would be roughly equivalent to irrigating Mexico from the North American Great Lakes. It would drive a canal 200 metres wide and 16 metres deep southwards for some 2500 kilometres, from the confluence of the north-flowing rivers Ob and Irtysh, to replenish the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers near the Aral Sea (see map)

The canal would carry 27 cubic kilometres of water a year. Though this is just seven per cent of the Ob's flow it would bring 50 per cent more water to the lower Aral Sea basin. 

The rationale behind the scheme is clear. Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union are economically dependent on cotton, a notoriously thirsty crop. Today the region's two biggest cotton growing nations, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have the highest per capita water consumption in the world. Yet Turkmenistan says it intends to double cotton production in the next decade.

International plans to kick-start the economy of northern Afghanistan, on the upper reaches of the Amudarya, depend on taking as much as 10 cubic kilometres of water a year from that river. With climate models predicting big decreases in rainfall in central Asia, the International Crisis Group, an NGO based in Brussels, Belgium, recently forecast water wars in the region.

Already, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, which once had combined flows greater than that of the Nile, have been largely emptied by massive irrigation projects to grow the cotton. As the rivers died, so has the Aral Sea into which they drain. It has lost three-quarters of its water since 1960, leaving former ports up to 150 kilometres from the receding shoreline, and a salty wilderness where the sea used to be. 

Dilapidated and inefficient

Meanwhile, irrigation canals in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have become increasingly dilapidated and inefficient. Few of the region's 50,000 kilometres of irrigation channels are sealed, so much of their water goes to waste. According to a World Bank study, some 60 per cent of water intended for farms does not reach the fields. 

Two years ago, while on a visit to Putin in Moscow, Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, revived the idea of diverting Siberian rivers. "Although it seems ambitious, it appears to be the only tangible solution to the ecological and other problems caused by the drying of the Aral Sea," says Abdukhalil Razzakov of the Tashkent State Economic University in Uzbekistan. 

Now, after more than a decade without discussion of the project in Russia, it is back on the table. Igor Zonn, director of Soyuzvod project, a Russian government agency in charge of water management and ecology, stated, "We are beginning to revise the old project plans for the diversion of Siberian rivers. The old material has to be gathered from more than 300 institutes." 

In January 2004, Luzhkov visited Kazakhstan to promote the plan. He says that central Asia would have to pay for the water, but behind the scenes Moscow sees the scheme as a way to rebuild its political and economic power in the region. It also wants to avoid a collapse of its southern neighbours' economies, which could send a flood of ecological refugees towards Russia. One-fifth of the population of the Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan has emigrated since 1990. 

But, as in the 1980s, the scheme will be hugely controversial in Russia. The chairman of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nikolai Dobretsov, has said that the diversion "would threaten the Ob basin with eco-catastrophe and socio-economic disaster", destroying fisheries and upsetting the local climate. 

Efficiency gains

Some environmentalists support the scheme as a means to revive the Aral Sea. But Oleg Vasilyev, a former head of the Institute of Water and Ecology Problems, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who backs the plan, says the water should be used primarily for irrigation, and so would never reach the Aral. 

Central Asia now faces a choice; begin massive reforms that will allow a more efficient use of water and less reliance on thirsty crops like cotton, or buy in water from outside. Nikita Glazovsky, a leading Russian geographer and former deputy environment minister under Boris Yeltsin, says the region's engineers "still find it easier to divert rivers than to stop inefficient irrigation". And reform has so far proved beyond the leaders of central Asia, whose methods of government have changed little since Soviet times. 

If Russia pursues the plan, the global ecological repercussions are bound to loom large. In the 1980s, western scientists feared that reducing the flows of north-flowing Siberian rivers would damage the Arctic ice cap and upset global climate. 

Now the tables have turned, and the worry is more about the increasing flow caused by global warming. The Ob and nearby rivers pour seven per cent more fresh water into the Arctic Ocean than 70 years ago, and climate models indicate that flows could rise by up to 80 per cent by the end of the century. 

The arrival of such large volumes of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean could lead to a sudden breakdown of a global ocean circulation system that ultimately drives the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe warm in winter. Such a breakdown could leave Europe facing a new ice age as the rest of the planet warms. 

Work on the diversion project is unlikely to begin soon, and it faces many financial, political, ecological, and design hurdles. But a project on this vast scale no longer seems unthinkable. China's south-north project to take water from the Yangtze River to the parched Yellow river is as large and expensive, and is underway. 

Some observers believe that Putin might like to leave the canal as a lasting symbol of his Presidency. According to Victor Brovkin, a Russian expert in climate modelling, now at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, "If Putin wants to respond to Bush's plan to go to Mars, this might be it."

 

 

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