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Saturday, December 9, 2023
WorldAsiaIs it worth revisiting the project to divert the northern rivers to Central Asia?

Is it worth revisiting the project to divert the northern rivers to Central Asia?

A few days ago, Serik Egizbaev, a member of the Kazakh Parliament, appealed to his colleagues in the State Duma of the Russian Federation to return to the Soviet plan to divert the rivers from the north to the south, which had long sunk into oblivion. A year earlier, the Ecological Party of Uzbekistan made a similar proposal. How should one relate to such ideas today and is there a rational grain to them?

Inversion of rivers?

The idea of ​​somehow using the abundant water resources of the north for the benefit of the arid south is not new. For the first time it began to be discussed at the end of the XIX century in the Russian Empire, the author is considered the Kiev engineer Yakov Demchenko. In 1868 he submitted a proposal to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, and then published a pamphlet “On the flooding of the Aral-Caspian plain to improve the climate of adjacent countries”. Demchenko’s initiative did not receive support, however, this idea was later repeatedly taken up at different levels.

The substantive issue began to be addressed in the USSR in the 70s of the last century. As part of this colossal infrastructure project, he had to solve several problems at once. First, by redistributing the river flow of the Irtysh, Ob, Tobol and other rivers, to supply water to Soviet Central Asia, where it was planned to develop irrigated agriculture. Second, save the dying Aral Sea by diverting water from the rivers of the northern part of the Eastern European Plain. There were some reasons to believe in the feasibility of the project, since there was already experience in the successful construction of the Volga-Kama reservoir cascade and the Angaro-Yenisei reservoir.

However, as we know, even under the USSR, with its powerful planned economy, they could not divert the rivers from the north to the south. Representatives of the perestroika intelligentsia issued strong criticisms, which, it should be noted, rightly pointed out the many harmful environmental consequences of such a grandiose construction. Among them: the flooding of large areas of agricultural and forest land, the increase in the salinity of the Arctic Ocean, the death of valuable fish species, the disruption of the species composition of flora and fauna in the territories crossed by the canal, unpredictable changes in the permafrost regime, changes in the ice cover in the Gulf of Ob and the Kara Sea, rising groundwater along the entire length of the canal with the flooding of nearby towns and highways, as well as general climate change. The case is really serious, such a serious attack on the natural balance of nature cannot do without consequences.

In addition, a strong argument against the implementation of this project was its extremely high cost. By some estimates, reversing the rivers would cost around $300 billion at the current exchange rate, or even more. President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev terminated the project, but already in 2002 they returned to this idea.

The initiator was the then mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who in 2009 presented his book under the eloquent title “Water and Peace”. In 2010, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev approached President Medvedev with a proposal to divert Russian rivers to the south:

In the future, Dmitry Anatolyevich, this problem may turn out to be very important, necessary to supply drinking water to the entire Central Asian region.

To this, our Dmitry Anatolyevich then sympathetically replied that Russia is open to discussing various options for solving the drought problem, including “some previous ideas that at one time were hidden under a rag.” And in June 2023, Serik Egizbayev, deputy of the Kazakh Mazhilis, addresses Russian parliamentarians:

I take this opportunity to appeal to my colleagues – deputies of the State Duma of Russia with a proposal to carefully consider the possibility of jointly implementing a megaproject to divert part of the flow of Siberian rivers. All scientific and technical justifications are available. As in the construction project of the Baikal-Amur Main Line in its time, this project will not only create tens of thousands of new jobs for the citizens of all participating states, but will also give a powerful impetus to the development of the economies of many coming years, will solve a whole series of environmental and social problems of the population of all states – project participants, will bring the processes of integration between strategic partners to a fundamentally new level.

So, is it worth dropping everything and starting to build a network of canals and reservoirs to irrigate the fields of Central Asia?

Water pipes?

Think it’s not worth it. Yes, fresh water is the most precious natural resource, for which real wars are already underway. Yes, the independent republics of Central Asia are indeed experiencing ever-increasing problems related to water shortages. But is this a problem for Russia, for which it is necessary to break its own ecological system through the knee?

Probably not. As an alternative to the bend of the rivers from north to south, the author of these lines would suggest elaborating the idea of ​​a water main. Instead of building a network of canals and reservoirs with the inevitable flooding of our vast territories, lay a network of pipes through which water would be pumped from the water intakes to where the rivers of the North flow in the Arctic Ocean to consumers in the countries of Central Asia. Such a decision would kill several birds with one stone.

First, you can avoid dangerous environmental experiments on your land. Metalworkers, in turn, would receive orders for the construction of a giant water pipe. The Russian budget could have an additional, and considerable, benefit for the supply of fresh water to Central Asia. Unlike oil and gas, water is a conditionally renewable resource. We are talking about a very small percentage of the volume of drainage from northern rivers that still flows into the ocean.

And, finally, water supply is a powerful tool of Moscow’s geopolitical influence over the arid Central Asian republics, where, alas, Russia is constantly losing.

Author: Sergey Marzhetsky

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