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Heroic river diversion plan resurrected.

Supporters of an ambitious Russian river diversion plan think they can revive the Aral Sea, bolster the flagging economies of certain unstable central Asian states, and forestall abrupt climate change, in one stroke. As reported in New Scientist, their plan--a revived Soviet scheme to divert water from the Ob and Irtysh rivers to the Aral region via a 2,500-kilometer canal--would channel the water to cotton plantations in arid Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All want to increase cotton output, and weakness in their cotton-based economies could contribute to political instability in this sensitive region.

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Backers also argue that some of the water could go to the dying Aral Sea, which has been strangled by the diversion of most of the flow of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers to cotton fields. And they say that the Ob and Irtysh are pouring more fresh water into the Arctic Sea than they used to, jeopardizing the "global conveyor" of salty ocean currents that keep Europe's climate temperate. Diversion could help avert that risk, they argue.

Opponents see the plan as another heroic-scale boondoggle, a prescription for ecological disaster, a means for Russia to reassert its power in the region, and a bribe for the governments there, which have allowed existing irrigation canals to degrade so badly that up to 60 percent of the water they carry leaks away. Opponents doubt that any of the diverted water would get to the Aral Sea, which has lost three-quarters of its volume since 1960.

The Ob diversion plan merely extends the intensive irrigation schemes that have long characterized agriculture in the region, practices that have led to waterlogged and salinized soils as well as to groundwater contamination with pesticides and fertilizers. The plan faces many obstacles, but Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin reportedly wants to leave the diversion canal as a monument to his rule.
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Title Annotation:Environmental Intelligence; Ob and Irtysh rivers to the Aral region
Author:Prugh, Tom
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:311
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