Friday, September 08, 2006

Kazakhstan: Diverted Mind Diverts Rivers?

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev is considering reviving old plans of diverting Siberian rivers to the Central Asian region, according to Interfax. Thus, Kazakhstan would get a greater inflow of fresh water for agricultural production, as was the intent with similar projects historically.

During a meeting with his Uzbek colleague Islam Karimov in Astana the other week, Nazarbayev claimed that "diverting Siberian rivers will not have a negative impact on the environment" and that "populist statements that this is dangerous were wrong."

Plans for diverting the flow of Siberian rivers have been long-lived. In the 1960s, there were even plans to do so by using atomic bombs. River diversion has however shown catastrophic consequences when employed. A Soviet decision to divert river water to cotton farming hastened the dispersion of the Aral Sea, causing social, economic and environmental disaster.

During Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev permanently put a stop to similar plans. However, the megalomanic idea of turning rivers have remained popular among some people. As late as in 2004, Russia appeared to be reviving its old river diversion plans, but thankfully enthusiasm seems to have petered out. Let us hope that this will also be the case with Nazarbayev's folly.


Rikard said...

It's well and good to say that they shouldn't divert rivers, but after all they live in a desert. At the same time as you criticize this plan, shouldn't you offer a suggestion as to how they could more effectively increase their arable land and feed their population? After all, if you can't do so then it's rather harsh to use such language about the leader who is charged with the responsiblity of bettering the life of his people, while you have none.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Rikard,

First of all, I am not a politician and therefore I should refrain from prescribing the policies of a country - in this case Kazakhstan. It is, however, obvious that Kazakhstan would benefit from greater economic and agricultural diversification.

As for your suggestion of increasing the amount of arable land, this is exactly one of the factors that has led to Kazakhstan's problems today. From the 1960s, Kazakhstan was subject to the Soviet "Virgin Lands" project, to utilise the country's large plains for extensive agricultural production - mainly cotton and crops.

This led to one of history's largest environmental disasters as monoculture and extensive irrigation projects drained the soil and led to selinisation and erosion, and thus the spread of desert lands. The long-term consequence was dropping crop yields as the earth was bereft of nutrition and minerals necessary for cultivation. Furthermore, the effects of the Virgin Lands project was that the flow of water to the Aral Sea was severely diminished, leading to the current situation in which one of the world's greatest lakes has effectively disappeared.

From this point of view, you may see why there is great reason for worry when plans of diverting rivers to gain more water for irrigation are raised once more. Historically, too extensive irrigation of Kazakhstan has led to an environmental disaster of enormous proportions. If such plans were to be carried through, the risk of worsening Kazakhstan's situation is obvious in a situation where the country is in need of environmentally sound agricultural production in order not to furhter worsen its situation for generations to come.

As for Nazarbayev, I do hope you do not nurture any illusions about him as some sort of benign leader of his people. There should be little doubt that Nazarbayev is an autocrat with little concern of democracy or the well-being of his people. Recently, Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, suggested that Kazakhstan should become a constitutional democracy with Nazarbayev as king or sultan or whatever title he might bestow upon himself.

You may see why I have little faith in the benign effects of diverting rivers or indeed in Nazarbayev's concern for the well-being of his people. I would be sad to see the peoples of Kazakhstan once more suffering from ill-advised decisions by an autocratic leader more occupied with perpetuating his and his family's rule than with the current and future destiny of his people.