The role of academic research in solving the ecological problems of the Aral Sea region

U. M. Sultangazin

I will discuss three key ecological problems for the Aral Sea basin:

1. the rationalization of water use,
2. the need to improve water quality,
3. the need to protect and re-create valuable landscapes and ecosystems.

I will show through these examples how wide-ranging data systems and extensive academic research can play an important role in solving these problems.

The National Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan has been working on the development of a complex programme for the improvement of the ecological situation in the territory of Kazakhstan. In this programme, most attention is centred on the ecological crisis in the Aral and Caspian Sea regions and the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, as is introduced by Tsukatani and Sultangazin (1996). About 20 research institutions of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences have been involved in the development of this programme. I would like to concentrate on the most significant aspects of this programme.

The rationalization of water use

The first problem is the rationalization of water use based on the comprehensive analysis of regional social and ecological factors. Unfortunately, during the Soviet period, economic decisions were often made without taking into consideration the importance of protecting the environment and the social and economic welfare of the regions involved. For example, a root cause of the «Aral Sea Problem» was the short-sighted economic view of those involved in the development and management of extensive irrigation projects. Driven by the potential for high profit, the environmental consequences of irrigation development were often ignored. This situation still exists in some of the Central Asian republics situated in the upper regions of the Syrdarya watershed. The task of the scientists is to reveal the underlying processes of agricultural and economic development and its impacts and to give qualitative or quantitative forecasts of the consequences of large projects.

The five countries of Central Asia have adopted a plan to solve the ecological problems of the Aral Sea and its adjacent regions. In order to realize this plan it is necessary first of all to determine the optimal distribution of water resources among industries. For this task, we will require information on the economic framework of the republics, the priorities of various industries, population projections, regional geographical information systems (GIS), and watershed management data. We will then be able to use some systems analysis methods to address the problem of the optimal distribution of water resources. Such an approach was introduced in the paper by Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995), which deals with the distribution of water resources in the Syrdarya basin.

The information system for environmental control comprises three levels: first, monitoring and processing; second, modelling of the environment-economic system; third, environmental control. The scheme for the optimal control of industries in the Syrdarya basin takes into consideration the ecological interests of the Aral Sea. The main constraint is the request for a minimum volume of inflow to the Aral Sea. Other constraints are imposed by the level of technology available to the agricultural sector.

The need to improve water quality

The second problem is how to improve water quality by means of sewage treatment and disposal, and the limitation of waste discharges and of mineral fertilizer use. The uncontrolled use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides has a negative impact on the environment and especially on human health. In the growing season, pollution of Syrdarya’s waters by pesticides reaches 12 MPC (maximum permissible concentration); for nitrates it amounts to 46 MPC. Mineralization of water in the Syrdarya (previously fresh) reached 3g/litre, which is 10 times the recommended health standard.

In view of these conditions, the evaluation and control of environmental quality and economic activities in this area should be included in the emergency programmes of the region’s policy makers. It has become important to determine priorities for regional environmental policies and to reform the structure of agriculture. Environmental systems are generally considered as multi-objective systems. Optimal standards for environmental quality and economic activities include many conflicting goals. In Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995) some mathematical models were constructed for the evaluation and management of regional environmental systems. Waste disposal planning is defined at two levels in our models.

The need to protect and re-create landscapes and ecosystems

The degradation of vegetation is occurring over practically the whole of the Aral Sea basin. This is primarily caused by the salinization of soils, resulting from irrigation and salt-dust storms. The number of salt-dust storms has increased with alarming frequency. At present the area of dried seabed is 36,000 km2 and it is located mostly along the eastern part of the Sea. Every year about 150,000 metric tons of dust and salt are lifted into the atmosphere. If we don’t stop this process in future, then the active desertification of adjacent territories and the merging of the newly created Aral desert (the Aralkum) with the Karakum and other deserts in the region may lead to the creation of a new desert of Saharan proportions at the centre of the Euro-Asian continent, which can have only negative consequences. Therefore, first of all it is necessary to create artificial landscape ecosystems in the river deltas and in the dried-up bottom of the Aral Sea. Some results of scientific investigations of phytomelioration prepared by the Academy of Sciences can be used for the creation of artificial ecosystems.

The Kazakh Academy of Sciences has made considerable strides toward solving the problems of natural resource usage in the republic. The research and development activities of a number of institutes during the past 10 years have covered a wide scientific spectrum of the dynamically changing nature of Kazakhstan. For example, the Institute of Hydrology and Hydrophysics is monitoring and investigating the state and environmental condition of groundwater resources in the territory of the republic. The Institute of Geography is investigating the hydro-ecological stability of the Aral and the Caspian Sea basins and is studying the anthropogenic influences on deserts and other geosystems. The Institute of Soil Sciences is investigating the ecological disturbance to soils in southern Kazakhstan (in the valleys of the Syrdarya, Chu, Ili, Talas, Karatal, etc.) and in the region of the Aral Sea, and disturbances on the slopes of Kazakhstan’s Tien Shan mountain range. The Institute of Botany is developing phytomeliorative for the arid areas of the exposed seabed and is conducting investigations into the productivity of pastures and into the biology and ecology of plants in the Aral region. It is also developing maps of plants and of desertification for the territory of Kazakhstan. The Institute of Zoology is studying technogenic factors and agricultural activity that adversely influence the flora and fauna of the republic. At the Institute of Zoology, the state of ecosystems has been analysed, based on surveys of the whole of Kazakhstan. This research has shown that the coastal regions of the Aral and the Caspian Seas are in fact in a state of total degradation.

In spite of rich data obtained by the various institutes of the Academy of Sciences, it is still difficult to obtain an accurate and comprehensive representation of the state of the national environment and the trends of change. Ground-level monitoring is carried out in only a limited number of areas and the extrapolation to other regions is often approximate. Therefore, the application of remote sensing may be very useful for future research and monitoring of environmental changes in Kazakhstan. In applying remote sensing, investigations carried out through test sites by the institutes will be of great importance when deciphering aerospace imagery. The system of environmental monitoring of the territory of Kazakhstan is projected as a set of instruments oriented to resolving existing problems. The system will be developed and new problems will be included in the package. For example, for the atmosphere the following very important problems can be highlighted:

• dust storms in the Aral Sea region, when millions of tons of salt are spread over a large area causing desertification;

• gaseous emissions as a result of accidental breaks in pipes;

• the state of snow cover and icecaps in the Pamir Heights and Tien Shan mountains.

• the transfer of water vapour to Central Asia from other regions.

Concrete tasks for other media will also be developed. Work on complex analyses, using mathematical models, is under way. Information obtained at three levels (space — air — ground) passes through the following stages: data acquisition, transmission, and reception, primary data processing, archiving, and the proposal of solutions to applied problems. The project envisages accomplishing all of the stages. Observations from space will be provided by satellites. Aerial observations are to be carried out on flying laboratories in aircraft. Surface-based observations will be conducted primarily on the testing ground in the Priaralie (the area immediately adjacent to the Aral Sea) and in the neighbouring regions of Almaty.

Some recommendations

First, a geographical information system should be created for the optimal control of the distribution of water resources and of waste disposal, taking into consideration the social and economic interests of the republics in the Aral Sea basin. This can be achieved through the application of the information system described by Sultangazin and Tsukatani (1995), and by mathematical models of the environment and economy.

Secondly, in order to undertake research into global environmental problems of desertification and global warming of the atmosphere and to evaluate the regional environmental situation, it would be valuable to establish an International Centre for Central Asian Ecology in Almaty.


Sultangazin, U. M. and T. Tsukatani.. 1995. Modeling of the Kazakhstan Economy and Environment. Discussion Paper No. 416. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto University.

Tsukatani, T. and U. M. Sultangazin. 1996. «Current economy and environment of Kazakhstan in 1995.» Japanese Slavic and East European Studies 16, pp. 95-106.