Fragilecologies

Diverting Russian Rivers: An Idea That Won't Die

October 9, 1995
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzA few decades ago, the leaders of the Soviet Union set into motion the planning process for the possible diversion of northward-flowing Siberian rivers to the arid southern part of their country. The diversions would water the desert sands of the Kyzylkum desert in Central Asia. It was proposed in the days when Soviet leaders were out to dominate nature. In fact, Khrushchev once said that his country could not wait for nature to provide its fruits to society and that his society was ready to take those fruits ... using its national technological prowess.

There was considerable debate over the wisdom of such diversions. Many Soviet geographers, soil scientists, and writers, among others, opposed the diversions, citing the adverse environmental impacts that would ensue. Some even suggested that diverting large amounts of fresh river water from flowing naturally into the Arctic Ocean could ultimately lead to the melting of Arctic Sea ice and a change in global climate.

When Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s, he implemented a policy of glasnost, or openness. Thus, debates that had taken place only in journals or in closed meetings were exposed to the public, in both the Soviet Union and in countries around the globe. Environmentalists rallied to the side of those opposed to the diversions. Gorbachev cancelled plans to undertake the diversion of the Siberian rivers.

Gorbachev's decision upset leaders of the Soviet Central Asia Republics, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan who, in essence, were trying to cope with the environmental impacts of regional river diversions and wanted retribution. Their land surrounds the Aral Sea, which, as we now know, is drying up at an unnatural rate of speed because increasing amounts of water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea had been diverted since 1960 to grow irrigated cotton and rice in the desert sands. With no water flowing into the Sea, evaporation took its toll on the remaining sea water. The Central Asian leaders expected that Siberian water would eventually make up for their sacrifice of the Aral Sea. At least, that is what they believed that the leaders in Moscow owed them for sacrificing their land to grow cotton to feed the textile mills in the Russian part of the Soviet Union.

Today, the Sea lays dying. The Siberian river diversion project is dead. End of Story. Or is it? Like a poltergeist, the river diversion project is back — to the surprise of everyone.

Declining Levels of 
the Aral Sea
An Uzbek Government poster display showing the declining levels of the Aral Sea over the last several decades. Photo by M.H. Glantz, taken in Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan in September 1995.

At a regional heads-of-state meeting on the Aral Sea crisis, organized by the United Nations Development Programme in mid-September 1995 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the Russian Minister for the Environment told the presidents of the Central Asian Republics that Russia was now prepared to provide them with water, either from the Volga River or from other Russian rivers in Siberia. This was interpreted as a renewal of the old, grandiose scheme to move large amounts of water to solve Central Asia's water problems. The Russians, however, were talking about selling water for drinking purposes and only in relatively limited amounts. They had also gone to the World Bank with this proposal last July, seeking Bank funding for the building of the pipeline. The Bank turned down the proposal. But now, leaders in Central Asia have been brought into the act, calling once again for water from Siberia or the Volga, water that they believe is owed to them by the Russian government that succeeded that of the former Soviet Union.

At a press conference, President Karimov of Uzbekistan applauded the Russian offer, as did President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Everyone else in the audience was shocked by the offer. Was it loose talk? Was it authorized by Yeltsin? No one yet knows. But, despite the radical political shifts of the past decade, it seems that the desire to dominate nature at almost all costs is still viewed as an option in Moscow as well as in Central Asian capitals. Apparently, plans to divert water from somewhere in Russia to Central Asia may still be alive and well in the minds of political leaders who are in a position to make it happen.

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