Ismail Jurabekov, counselor to Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, told Uzbek and Russian experts in mid-2002 that diverting Siberian waters to Central Asia would be "a mutually beneficial project." The idea of diverting Siberian rivers was first proposed in the 1970s, when a project to build a 2,000-kilometer canal from Siberia was discussed. The canal was to "feed" the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya Rivers into the dying Aral Sea, which the Soviet Union had been draining.
The project was suspended during the "perestroika" era. But today, some politicians in Russia believe the canal may provide a means by which Moscow can apply effective pressure on restive former Soviet republics. Many influential Russian politicians endorsed Jurabekov's speech, touching off a heated debate in the Russian and Central Asian press. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov wrote an open letter to Russia's President Vladimir Putin lobbying for the project. Putin responded by ordering a special committee to look into the project's feasibility.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia's largest newspapers, ran a piece on January 5, describing Luzhkov as the architect of the revived plan. The piece quoted a Luzhkov aide as promising that Russia would be able to sell its water "again and again," thereby creating jobs and enhancing its regional influence. According to hydrologist Oleg Vasiliyev, counselor to the Russian Academy of Sciences and a veteran of the Siberia notion, diversion of 5-7 percent of Siberian waters will not have any "global" effect. He also envisions a regional payoff, which he calls a "green bridge," via which Russia would exchange Siberian water for Central Asian fruit, vegetables and other food products.
Many scholars and environmentalists contend that a new diversion project would have disastrous effects on the ecological balance in Siberia and Central Asia. Academics worry that water will remain salinated when it reaches Uzbekistan, making it undesirable for irrigation; that leaks from the canal will swamp vast territories; and that species of fish and bacteria will mix in unhealthy ways. Many also worry that sending Siberian waters to Uzbekistan's warmer terrain will disrupt the climate in both places.
One project opponent, Alexei Yablokov, President of the Center of Ecological Policy of the Russian Federation, says that none of these concerns should ever have to go through a vetting. According to him, Central Asians should first learn to save water. "Daily consumption of water in Tashkent is as high as 530 liters per capita," he said, "twice as much as in other national capitals
Rustem Temirov is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.