The postponed UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) will be held in Glasgow next November. One of the most startling impacts of man-made climate catastrophes they should consider is the unfolding disaster in Central Asia. During Soviet times, Moscow ruled the roost in the five Central Asian republics. The Soviets constructed massive hydro-power projects on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, retaining water in huge reservoirs during the long winter months to drive the turbines to produce energy for the Tajik population. In the summer, the water was released to provide irrigation facilities for the downstream countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, so that they could grow cotton and rice. The downstream nations in return supplied the Tajiks with coal and oil to keep their factories working. 

Stalin decided that the region was ideal for providing all of the cotton requirements of the USSR. He ordered a network of canals and irrigation systems to be built by hand, using slave labour, to provide water for these thirsty crops, heedless of the environmental catastrophe his plans would cause. His schemes quickly drained the two main rivers which supply the Aral Sea - the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, reducing their flow to a trickle. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest inland sea in the world, covering more than 40,000 square miles. Within only a few years, the mean water level fell from an average depth of over 53 metres to only 26 metres. The sea shrank to one thirteenth of its former size, retreating quickly across the desert, leaving a wilderness of desolation and emptying hundreds of lakes and waterways along the course of the rivers that fed it. Some experts predict that in 20 years' time, the large Southern Aral Sea will disappear altogether.

In ancient times the Aral Sea was a rich oasis on the Silk Road, where thousands of farmers, merchants, hunters and craftsmen came to barter and buy fish from scores of local fishermen who plied their trade in the vast river deltas, teeming lagoons and shallow straits. There was also a bustling shipping industry that connected the northern port of Aralsk to the river ports of the biggest river, the Amu Darya, some as far distant as Tajikistan. All of that has gone. Now tracts of seabed lie exposed to the withering sun. Crumbling fishing boats lie on their sides in the desert sand. It is as if a plug has been pulled out and the water has simply drained away. In the 1960s, 500 fishing vessels, the rotting hulks of which litter this desiccated seabed, once landed 30,000 tonnes of fish a year in the bustling port of Muynak on the Aral Sea. Today, you have to travel more than 100 miles from Muynak to find the sea. 

Unbelievably this global catastrophe did not take centuries to materialise. It happened in the course of one generation. Now, swirling toxic dust storms carry the residues of salt from the exposed seabed and DDT sprayed on the cotton crops in Soviet times, causing widespread erosion and pollution over an area of 12,000 square miles, devastating the health of the local population. Fierce competition for water has rapidly increased between the downstream nations - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and the upstream nations – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Years of climate change and drought have further exacerbated a deteriorating situation. A dwindling supply and escalating demand have elevated water issues to almost the same level of tension as Islamic extremism.

However, it is not so much the Aral Sea as the Aral Sea Basin, the home to 50 million people, where this ecological disaster may become the source of potential conflict and problems. In Europe, water use has increased while the population has decreased. In Central Asia the opposite has happened. Population growth has risen by 1.5% in the Syr Darya Basin alone in the past decade. Due to climate change, temperatures in the region have increased by almost 2°C since the beginning of the 20th century.  So, unless the water problem is tackled, a social and environmental catastrophe will occur, leading to mass migration. We will see the advent of environmental refugees on a mammoth scale.

There are increasing pressures on the Aral Sea from upstream users of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. But there is also a looming threat that is related to the future water needs of Afghanistan. When, or if, the security situation stabilises in Afghanistan, much of the country’s development will focus on irrigated agriculture which will, in turn, mean increased use of the water resources available from the already over-exploited Amu Darya. Some experts predict that post-war Afghanistan could double the amount of water it currently uses, inevitably creating tension and enhancing the risk of conflict with the Amu Darya’s downstream users, who already encounter water availability problems. 

As mammoth projects to build hydro-electric power plants proceed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the downstream nations nervously respond by building more and more artificial lakes and reservoirs for storing irrigation water. There are currently over 90 reservoirs in the Aral Sea Basin, 50 in Uzbekistan alone. Most were constructed in the past 20 years. Unfortunately, many of these reservoirs are simply earth-lined, enabling large-scale water seepage and loss.

Water is life. When it disappears, there are enormous economic and social consequences. This is why we must look to all nations neighbouring the Aral Sea to take ownership of this problem. They are the ones at risk. They will be the biggest losers. Mass migration of environmental refugees may be the end result and this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Central Asia lays bare the threats climate change poses to peace and prosperity. The COP 26 conference in Glasgow will have to deal with the fact that 1 in 3 people worldwide do not have access to clean and safe water. Water is one of the biggest challenges we face as a global society and the cataclysm in Central Asia is a prime example of how mankind can create an environmental crisis in the course of a single generation.