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U.N. chief shocked by shrinking lake(Aral Sea)

May 30, 2010

From MSNBC

NUKUS, Uzbekistan – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday called the drying up of the Aral Sea one of the planet’s most shocking disasters and urged Central Asian leaders to step up efforts to solve the problem.

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.

Ban toured the sea by helicopter as part of a visit to the five countries of former Soviet Central Asia. His trip included a touchdown in Muynak, Uzbekistan, a town once on the shore where a pier stretches eerily over gray desert and camels stand near the hulks of stranded ships.

“On the pier, I wasn’t seeing anything, I could see only a graveyard of ships,” Ban told reporters after arriving in Nukus, the nearest sizable city and capital of the autonomous Karakalpak region.

“It is clearly one of the worst disasters, environmental disasters of the world. I was so shocked,” he said.

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However, cooperation is hampered by disagreements over who has rights to scarce water and how it should be used.

In a presentation to Ban before his flyover, Uzbek officials complained that dam projects in Tajikistan will severely reduce the amount of water flowing into Uzbekistan. Impoverished Tajikistan sees the hydroelectric projects as potential key revenue earners.

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.

From MSNBC

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