As Uzbekistan continues the annual cotton harvest that is largely responsible for the Aral Sea’s demise, officials in Tashkent are boasting that a recent donor conference raised close to $3 billion to help save the endangered lake, once the world’s fourth-largest.
Verifying Uzbek government claims is never easy, and conference attendees are not hurrying to confirm or break down the impressive figure. But an event for the Aral Sea did take place in Urgench, a city not far from the Aral’s receding shoreline, on October 27 and 28. Addressing the conference via pre-recorded video, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon demanded better international coordination to “mitigate environmental catastrophe” reported uz24.uz, an Uzbek outlet. According to the independent Uznews.net, the conference was organized by the authoritarian state in conjunction with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a regional club, which critics say has done almost nothing since it was set up in 1993.
NASA satellite photos released in late August show that even a partial replenishment of the water-starved Aral is unlikely: The lake’s eastern tranche has completely dried up for the first time in history.
Whether the donations will improve conditions in the area surrounding the lake, where salination has destroyed farmland and weather has become more extreme, is unclear. In comments picked up by Russia’s RIA Novosti on October 30, Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov claimed the $2.9 billion package consisted of $1.9 billion in credit and $1 billion in grants and “funds for technical aid.”
Any assistance would likely go toward filling some of the holes in the leaky irrigation networks responsible for feeding Uzbekistan’s farmland and diverting water from the Aral. While much of the lake’s decline took place on the Soviet Union’s watch as Moscow aggressively expanded agriculture in the region by diverting feeder rivers, the problem has accelerated since Uzbekistan’s independence. Tashkent’s continued reliance on the thirsty cotton crop in particular makes it the fourth-biggest water waster in the world.
While Azimov did not specify exactly where the purported assistance would head, donors might be cautious before pouring it directly into Tashkent’s coffers. Uzbekistan’s rulers are notoriously venal and have been utterly passive in the face of the Aral’s slow death, constantly seeking to expand exports of cotton – the lifeblood of a turgid domestic economy – without repairing the arteries that take water to the fields. A cynic might say the donors are in fact rewarding long-term failure.