Scientists and agronomists supporting this project in the 1970s and early 1980s said it could enable the USSR to become not only self-sufficient in grain but actually an exporter. However, serious ecological objections were raised and in August 1986, shortly after the perestroika economic reforms had gone into effect, the project, on which work had already begun, was discontinued by a decision of the CPSU Central Committee and the Council of Ministers.
We would be eager to ally ourselves with the ecological objections were it not for the fact that this issue is also part of a larger struggle between the conservatives and the reformers, and, more dangerously, between the North and the South, that is, the more developed vs. the less developed areas of the Soviet Union. This puts the issue within the context of the national question at a time when national antagonisms have been raised to a very dangerous level by the restructuring.
The USSR has an abundance of fresh water, but much of it is found in the Siberian rivers which flow north through an area of permafrost and a short growing season. The idea of diverting a portion of the water in the Siberian rivers to the South was first raised almost a century ago. It was seen as an answer to the perennial problem of drought in southern Kazakhstan and the Central Asian Republics. Researchers began studying the feasibility of such a project in the mid-1960s.
By 1982, much work had been done by the All-Union Design and Research Institute for Water Resources Construction. A plan was drawn up for a canal 2,200 kilometers long running from the junction of the Ob and Irtysh rivers in Siberia to the lower reaches of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers in Central Asia. The chief project engineer was I. Gerardi, who gave his views in an interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta of March 10, 1982.1
Gerardi, answering criticisms that had been directed against the project, stressed its "great social and economic importance for the country." He said that only a relatively small amount of water (about 25 cubic kilometers of water in the first stage of the project and 60 cu. km. in the second stage, out of a total average annual water flow of 1,350 cu. km.) would be withdrawn from the Siberian rivers, which could in no way be described as turning these rivers around or reversing their flow. He also said there were no plans to build reservoirs and inundate floodplains in Siberia, as had been charged by the project's opponents.
Gerardi said that by using a very small part of the Siberian rivers' water resources, the sharp fluctuations in agricultural output in the southern regions could be overcome and an additional 25 to 30 million tons of grain a year be produced at the outset, rising to 50 to 60 million tons on the project's completion. With the use of this water potential, Gerardi argued, enough grain could be produced in the semi-arid regions of Kazakhstan and Siberia to feed over 200 million people.
Answering environmental objections to the project, Gerardi said that calculations made by the USSR State Committee on Hydrometeorology and the Environment's Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic showed that the project would not disturb temperature and ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean. If anything would be affected by the withdrawal of water from the Siberian rivers, he said, it is the fish. Estimates made by the State Institute for the Designing of Hydraulic Engineering, Fish Breeding, and Pond Structures predicted the loss of about 7,000 tons of fish a year in Siberia. However, this would be more than made up for by an increase of 27,000 tons a year of fish in the refurbished lakes along the canal route and in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya deltas.
Critics of the plan say that a great deal of the water carried by the earthen canal over such a long distance would be lost through evaporation and seepage. Gerardi answered that much of the soil the canal would pass through contains clay and is relatively impermeable to water. In sections that pass through sandy and sandy-loam soil, drainage pipes would be laid alongside the canal that would return the seepage either to the irrigation systems or to the canal itself. He estimated that water loss would be less than the usual 5% to 10% for canals in that region.
Some argue that rather than spend money on such a huge undertaking, a more economical approach to the problem would be to invest in reconstructing the present irrigation systems, which lose a good deal of water every year, and in developing more economical methods of irrigation, such as sprinkler and drip irrigation. The two approaches shouldn't be set up against each other, answered Gerardi, adding that the USSR Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources was working on technical improvement of old irrigation systems and that this work should be completed by around the time the Siberian water would be arriving in the area. He added that, as to high cost, the canal was supposed to pay for itself within 10 years.
According to Gerardi, over 150 research and design organizations had worked with the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources on the technical and economic feasibility studies for the project.
In the same issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta, an opposing view was offered by V. Perevedentsev, a Candidate of Economics. He saw a confrontation between the project's planners and research personnel from other departments. He cited as important but unanswered questions the following: What percentage of the water taken from the Ob will reach the regions where it is to be used? What will the mineral content of this water be at the end of the main canal? How will the cold Siberian water's flora and fauna behave in the hot desert climate? What consequences will the water-diversion project have for Siberia? What will the final cost be, and when will it be recouped?
Perevedentsev referred to economist A. G. Aganbegyan, who had said at a conference in Novosibirsk in 1979 that there was no economic justification for the canal. He estimated that the canal would cost about 14 million rubles and that it would take at least 20 years to recover the cost of construction. As an alternative to the Ob-Amu Darya canal, Perevedentsev suggested irrigation of vast areas of Western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan. For Central Asia, he advocated improved irrigation methods with existing water and introducing a charge for water.
Work on the Ob-Amu Darya canal had begun by January 1985. A group of construction workers from Uzbekistan had arrived in Tyumen Province and had begun setting up housing, building roads, and preparing a production base. Large amounts of machinery, equipment and building materials were arriving. However, it was announced in Pravda and Izvestia of Aug. 20, 1986, that the CPSU Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers had adopted a resolution "On Discontinuing Work on Diverting Part of the Flow of Northern and Siberian Rivers." The resolution discontinued design and preparatory work on diverting part of the flow of northern rivers into the Volga River and any further implementation of design studies related to the diversion of part of the flow of Siberian rivers to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The USSR State Planning Committee, the USSR State Agro-Industrial Committee and the USSR Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources were instructed to exclude assignments for carrying out this work from their plans for 1986-1990. The money and material resources freed up were to be redirected into the reclamation of land in the Non-Black-Earth Zone of the Russian Republic and into the expansion of work on the reconstruction of irrigation systems in the Volga River basin.
This decision was made against the backdrop of a political struggle in the areas most concerned. On February 27, 1986, the first secretary of the Kazakhstan CP Central Committee, and member of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, D.A. Kunayev, had said in a speech to the 27th Congress of the CPSU that while scientific and technical progress had been made in Kazakhstan due to "the Party's concern for the all-around development of each of the Union republics and to the triumph of the Leninist nationalities policy," some of the national ministries had failed to implement development projects in the area. His talk concluded that "The further development of the economy requires drastic improvement in Kazakhstan's water supply. In this connection, it seems to us that questions connected with saving the Aral Sea and with the ecology and economy of the regions adjacent to it, immediately or farther away, must not be postponed."
On December 17, 1986, Kunayev was removed as first secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party and from the CPSU Politburo. He was replaced by an ethnic Russian. The next day, there was a rebellion in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, in which two people were killed.
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