08/10 - Crossing scientific disciplines and cultures in the Syr Darya River basin, Kazakhstan

By Daniel Snow and Alan S. Kolok

The Syr Darya River is the largest river in southern Kazakhstan, and is one of the two major rivers which supply fresh water to the rapidly dissappearing Aral Sea in central Asia. The Syr Daria basin is considered by some to be one of the greatest human-derived ecological disasters of all time. In a misguided attempt to maximize the agricultural productivity, Soviet-era managers expanded an extensive canal system and encouraged the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. The result was a massive diversion of water and ultimate draw-down of the Aral Sea alongside a dramatic reduction in water quality.

A pilot study funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Catalyzing New International Collaborations (CNIC) Program to the University of Nebraska, sent a group of 8 U.S. scientists and engineers to explore this river in early June 2015. The intent of the visit was to evaluate the extent to which the Syr Daria was contaminated with pesticides and the degree to which the pesticides were interfering with local fish populations.

Scientists from Nebraska and Texas worked side-by-side with chemists and biologists from Al Farabi Kazakh National University throughout a 4 day expedition. The team traveled overland by train and van to reach the Shardara Reservoir, immediately downstream of neighboring country of Uzbekistan. This reservoir is the largest impoundment in Kazakhstan feeding a massive collection of canals irrigating crops in the Syr Darya basin. Over the course of three days, the US and Kazakhstan scientists collected multiple samples of water, sediment and fish tissue in an effort to understand the extent of the pesticide contamination. The region is one of the most heavily irrigated and cropped regions within the basin the Syr Darya and is also  one of the most important areas for recreational fishing in Kazakhstan. Analysis of these samples will provide data to assess the current state of the ecosystem and its chances for recovery. 

The purpose of the pilot study was not to complete an entire environmental risk assessment of the Syr Darya, but rather to train US and Kazakhstan students in methods to measure chemicals and effects needed for this assessment. To the end, the pilot study was proceeded by a two-day workshop that was attended by US and Kazakhstan students alike. Given that experimental design can be influenced by national mores and traditions, the cross-cultural interaction was highly beneficial for both groups of students.  It is only through international travel that a full appreciation for these non-scientific influences on the scientific thought process can truly be appreciated. The fact that the Great Plains of Nebraska resemble the Steppe of Kazakhstan, and that fact that the Syr Daria resembles the Platte River, provided a context that both groups of students (and their professors) could appreciate.  

The people and cultures in the Syr Darya of Kazakhstan are very much like our own, dependent on the land to make a living and sustain their quality of life. They hope to learn as much as they can about the impacts of agriculture on water resources and the aquatic environment that depends on these resources. Through international cooperation, we can all learn about the future of our own water and natural resources.