April 05, 2010

This Weekend’s News: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Water provided the biggest natural security headline of the weekend, as Ban Ki-moon flew over the Aral Sea – now 90% sea-less – and declared it “clearly one of the worst disasters, environmental disasters of the world.”

A whole lot of degradation went into the loss of the Aral Sea, but one water and energy equation seems to continue to affect water issues in the region: Tajikistan wants energy for its economic growth and is looking to hydro power; Uzbekistan wants the same water to continue to flow for its own uses. This same equation plays out all over the world, and it’s a tradeoff we need to think about for places like Pakistan that get a lot of their energy from hydropower in waterways that run through other countries first. Huffington Post reported the Aral Sea case thusly:

Once the world's fourth-largest lake, the sea has shrunk by 90 percent since the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a Soviet project to boost cotton production in the arid region. The shrunken sea has ruined the once-robust fishing economy and left fishing trawlers stranded in sandy wastelands, leaning over as if they dropped from the air. The sea's evaporation has left layers of highly salted sand, which winds can carry as far away as Scandinavia and Japan, and which plague local people with health troubles.

By now you may be asking: What is the security angle in this? Reporting on what has actually happened on the security side is still lacking as far as I’ve found. Huff Post, noting that “Cooperation [has been] hampered by disagreements over who has rights to scarce water and how it should be used,” suggests that these are some possible effects:

Competition for water could become increasingly heated as global warming and rising populations further reduce the amount of water available per capita. Water problems also could brew further dissatisfaction among civilians already troubled by poverty and repressive governments; some observers fear that could feed growing Islamist sentiment in the region.

I’m not feeling very argumentative today, so I’m going to just ignore that last sentence rather than rant about it for now. But I think there is an interesting case here. What percentage of the population has migrated from this area? What have been the effects on the economies of this region? If people left because their water resources vanished, where did they go? Michael Hancock at Registan provides a great overview that sheds some light on the matter, including:

What, then, was lost with the Aral Sea? For beginners, a thriving fishing industry and two major port towns left without their businesses – Moynoq in the south and Aralsk in the north. Today they are in two different countries, but when the Aral Sea still reached their shores, they were both important towns in the Soviet Union. They are now broken ghost towns in the independent Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, respectively.

Over the past week I've also been reading National Geographic's special issue on water, and later this week I’ll give you my highlights from that. This is shaping up to be a water-centric week here at the blog, but we’ll try to avoid overkill. For now I’ll leave you with the best comic/political cartoon of the week, which sort of has to do with water as well: The Oregonian's Jack Ohlman had this funny take on Obama's energy announcement.

Events of the Week

On Tuesday, SAIS begins its two day 2010 Energy Conference: Short-Term Stresses, Long-Term Change, set to start at 9:00am (registration fee required). A little later, CSIS will discuss forthcoming initiatives from the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), beginning at 1:00pm. Resources for the Future will hold a seminar over A Natural Gas Revolution? Examining the Impact, set to start at 12:45pm. Thursday at 9:00am Brookings will host an event on the potential effects of a nuclear-powered world. Later on, our friends across the street at the Wilson Center will discuss New Research on Population and Climate: The Impact of Demographic Change on Carbon Emissions, featuring Brian O'Neill, a lead author in the IPPC's 4th Assessment, beginning at 3:00pm. Friday, beginning at 10:00am, Brookings will hold a book discussion on Smart Power: Climate Change, Smart Grid and the Future of Electric Utilities.