United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNESCO launches new Aral Sea Basin initiative

Dushanbe, Tajikistan - UNESCO Director-General Ko´chiro Matsuura will announce tomorrow a new initiative to study the Aral Sea Basin under the auspices of the World Water Assessment Programme, which brings together 23 United Nations agencies through a secretariat hosted by UNESCO.

Mr Matsuura will make the announcement during an international seminar on November 1st in Dushanbe on freshwater resource management, which will gather high-level policy makers, scientists and representatives of UN agencies from the six countries sharing the basin: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The new study will build upon previous investigations conducted by UN agencies, notably a special UNESCO report analyzing the risks of conflict and potential for cooperation among the basin states, which will be released in the beginning of 2003, designated the International Year on Freshwater.

"I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the Government of Tajikistan for hosting this event and for taking the initiative to designate 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater," says Mr Matsuura. The UN has selected UNESCO as a lead agency in coordinating water-related activities around the world throughout the year.

The Aral Sea has become a synonym for ecological disaster, with its dramatic pictures of rusty boats lying in the sands of what used to be the fourth largest lake on earth. During the Soviet era in the 1960s, central authorities decided to divert unprecedented amounts of water from two rivers feeding the Aral, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, to irrigate huge new cotton plantations, primarily in Kazakhstan. By planting the single crop of cotton, they exhausted both freshwater supplies and the soil. But instead of altering the policy, farmers were encouraged to use more water and dangerous amounts of pesticides and fertilizer.

Today, the Aral is about half its original size. The two main fishing ports are dry, stranded ten kilometers from the remaining water, which used to be brackish but is now extremely polluted and four times more saline. The lack of water has even upset the microclimate. Today, violent sandstorms regularly rip through the basin, carrying away an estimated 150,000 tons of salt and sand contaminated with pesticide residues each year.

Fishing and navigation have completely disappeared and agricultural yields have plummeted. The population also suffers from serious health problems primarily caused by toxic drinking and irrigation water.

UNESCO has been working with the concerned countries to study and improve conditions since 1992, through a network of about 20 research projects involving more than 140 scientists from the region. In 1998, UNESCO created the Scientific Advisory Board for Aral Sea Basin Problems to explore options for the future. There have been longstanding plans to divert other rivers in order to restore the Aral Sea. However, such schemes could cause further ecological damage. UNESCO has therefore focused on helping the national governments to manage the basin and coordinate their activities jointly in such key areas as agriculture and hydroelectricity in order to reinforce the fragile health of the entire basin.

The International Year on Freshwater will serve as a platform to encourage this kind of work. The UN resolution proclaiming the year was initiated by the Government of Tajikistan and supported by 148 other countries. It encourages governments, the UN system and all other non-governmental and corporate actors to increase awareness of the importance of sustainable freshwater use, management and preservation. It also calls upon them to make voluntary contributions and lend other forms of support to the year.


In Paris: Amy Otchet
Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Telephone: +33 (0) 1 45 68 17 05
E-mail: a.otchet@unesco.org

In Dushanbe: Peter Coles
Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Telephone: +33 6 14 69 54 98
E-mail: p.coles@unesco.org

Source Press Release No.2002-85
Publication Date 30 Oct 2002
ę UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 7324