Foreign Policy Blogs

The Aral Sea Disaster, part 2: Soviet irrigation

100-plus years of accelerating irrigation, destruction
NASA, comparative phots

Though the Environmental Justice Project blames the Aral Sea disaster upon Karimov's regime, this is not strictly correct (or even useful).  The Aral Sea disaster is a mostly ignored but challenging legacy to Central Asia's leadership as a whole.  Uzbekistan is the prime violator of sustainable water regimes, but Karimov is not the only historical or current leader who bears responsibility for Aral Sea degradation.  Central Asia's states have only continued an agricultural system that has been in place for decades.

Pre-Soviet Era
The Amu Darya and Syr Darya were used for irrigation before the Tsars, under customary and traditional family practice and small landholdings.  Irrigation development under the Tsars was accomplished after 1900, and mainly extended irrigation in areas where irrigation was already in practice, such as the Ferghana Valley.

The Soviet invasions of Central Asia under the 1920's destroyed or made dormant many irrigation systems.  These, however, were repaired by the late 1920's, and further advances in agriculture began.

Soviet-era posterAgricultural Collectivization
The beginning of collective farms was the true beginning of the Aral Sea disaster, because it increased the scale of irrigation waterways.  It's possible that any large-scale farming that ignored micro-climates, Soviet-planned or not, would have caused these problems.  Nevertheless, the command structure of the Soviet economy played a distressing part, because the plan was more important than the realities on the ground.  Alongside its often brutal implementation, a disdain for local knowledge was betrayed by collectivization policy.

Under Stalin, larger collective farms (kolkhoz; sovkhoz) were established; the irrigation for these larger tracts of land proved vastly less efficient in terms of water flow.  These longer, wider, uncovered irrigation canals increased the evaporation rate of the diverted water, meaning that more water was required to moisten the same amounts of land.  Increasing irrigation influx caused swamping and soil erosion.  Between increased erosion and increased evaporation, irrigation water became so greatly saline in content as to be agriculturally useless.  This salinized water was returned to the rivers and traveled, inevitably, to the Aral Sea.

Virgin Lands Program
During the mid 1950's under Khrushchev's Virgin Lands program, increased land cultivation required increasing irrigation capacity.  In 1954, the Soviet Union needed grain urgently, and hesitated to purchase it on the world market.  Given these isolationist constraints, Soviet policymakers considered developing the steppes of Kazakhstan and Siberia more cost-effective than enriching fields already cultivated.  The plan itself was centrally formulated, grandiose in design, and its pace unsustainably high.

Soviet tractor, 1920's or 30'sInterestingly, most of the criticism of the program came from inside the Soviet Union.  Discreet articles which blamed no one in particular noted the conservation hazards of wheat monoculture in northern Kazakhstan and the increasing incidence of dust storms there.  In the U.S., analysts held mixed views of Soviet agricultural success‚ industrialization, one must remember, was and still is considered a positive sign of development. 

One notable article I found (mostly divorced from Cold War politics or even a conventional economics of the time) studied Central Asian water from the point of view of resource geography.  Neil Field (1954) compares of the water capacity of the Amu Darya against three canal and irrigation projects slated to draw from it.  He concluded at the onset of the Virgin Lands Programme that the Amu Darya projects were not feasible. 

One of those projects, the Kara-Kum Canal in Turkmenistan, was completed.  A second canal project for Turkmenistan, from Nukus to points south and nearly as long as the Kara-Kum, was scrapped completely.  The third project, to irrigate parts of South Central Uzbekistan, appears to have been built in a modified form.  As Field would have predicted, the two surviving projects, their extensions, and their inefficiency, took most of the Amu Darya's water capacity, which has caused Aral Sea shrinkage.

The cycle of desperation–By the Numbers
The failure of agricultural reform toppled Khrushchev, but it did not end any of these projects.  Luxenburg (1971) cites UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) statistics showing that Soviet agricultural productivity slumped in the post-Khrushchev years, reaching 1962 levels of productivity again in 1968.  Moreover, production could not keep up with population growth. 

One figure, however, that did keep pace over the decades, was Soviet use of chemical fertilizers.  Fertilizer use increased 282% between 1960 and 1968, on approximately 2.1 million less hectares of land.  Not all of this fertilizer use could be called mis-application, nor was all of the fertilizer used in Central Asia.  But we can reasonably infer that increased fertilizer use also increased the salinization of irrigation water, and thus, the water of the Aral Sea.  To indiscriminate use of fertilizer, one must also add indiscriminate use of pesticide; and for cotton harvests, the indiscriminate use of chemical defoliants.

As the Soviet Union slid into bureaucratic stasis, and then outright failure, the problems for the Aral Sea worsened.  The canal/irrigation systems, already flawed in design, fell into increasing disrepair.  Showing sincere commitment to agricultural production meant utilizing fertilizer and pesticide in increasing amounts, but this failed to boost production.  By 1987, the Aral Sea had divided in two — already a local disaster.

Still using Beach, et al, Field, and Micklin, as noted in Part 1.
Add Luxenburg (1971), and four articles drawing on Martin McCauley's Khrushchev and the Development of Soviet Agriculture: [Ellison (1977), Kozlowski (1978), Miller (1977), and Stuart (1978)]–see Worth Reading: Central Asia General.

Poster: Tate Gallery, London
Photos: NASA,
NASA Photos of the Aral Sea, including the 2000-2001 drought
Check out the FPA blog on Climate Change in blogroll at right

Part 3 on public health concerns in the Aral Sea region will run tomorrow.