Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thirsty Thursday: A Dying Sea

I went to a talk on Tuesday about a sustainable future for agriculture. And while there are numerous concerns with agriculture - chemical and fertilizer usage, deforestation, etc. - water always surfaces as a critical piece in the puzzle. 

The first time that I saw this series of images, I refused to believe it. But it's true; in the 1960's the Soviet Union undertook the project that diverted water away from the two major rivers feeding the inland sea abutting Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. As with many diversion projects preceding and following, this supplied the water needed to irrigate crops, primarily cotton, in the surrounding desert regions.  By the time my sister hit her 20th birthday, the sea was a fraction of what it had been, the fishing industry had collapsed, and salinization/residual harmful chemicals made the soil untenable. Sound familiar? Well that's because humanity is withdrawing water at a rapidly unsustainable rate, and 70-90% goes toward agriculture! Even in the U.S., the Colorado River now stops 200 miles short of the Pacific Ocean, having been siphoned off to quench the thirst of crops in the Central Valley of California and the arid Southwest. Ok, maybe no absurdly toxic soil, but we have a serious water problem. 

But this inland body of water, once the fourth largest in the world, may be experiencing a revival. According to a 2010 National Geographic article, fish are starting to return to the North Aral Sea. There is also the hope of building this area up as a tourist destination. And while this is obviously an environmental tragedy on the brink of catastrophe, for me the most critical point to convey is that reviving the sea also makes economic sense. This is a classic example of where conservation is not just for well-to-do, tree-huggers, but is essential for the continued prosperity of local human populations. 

Maybe today should have been my soapbox!

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