Book Review by Sevket Akyildiz

Igor S. Zonn, & Michael H. Glantz, & Andrey G. Kostianoy, & Aleksey N. Kosarev. The Aral Sea Encyclopedia. (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2009) pp. 290. ISBN978-3-540-85086-1. pp. 291., 55 illus., £89.99, 99.95 Euros, hardback.

This book addresses and organizes thought on environmental, scientific, cultural and political subjects concerning a negative legacy of Soviet socio-economic transformation within Central Asia. The environmental disaster relates to the shrinking of the Aral Sea's water capacity, reduction in water inflow from local rivers, and the overuse of water for economic development. The Soviets overused and mismanaged the local water sources for agricultural irrigation (notably, cotton monoculture), resulting in the sea shrinking since 1960 in capacity and continuing up until today. Associated with the retreat of the sea are dust pollution and chronic human diseases. The five republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are located in the Aral Sea basin and share water related interests. International concern and interest lead to former United States vice-President and 2007 Nobel prize-winner Al Gore visiting the region and commenting upon the deep connection of local people with their natural environment.

The authors of this encyclopedia report that this text is not "exhaustive" in knowledge on the subject; their key aim is to highlight the dangers and pitfalls of authoritarian "nature conquerors." The target audience of this book is the general public, school children and area specialists (p. 4). The structure of the text is alphabetical (and includes in the back of the book a detailed chronology of the Aral Sea region, issues and policies from the 16th century to 2008). The alphabetical structure has strengths and shortcomings; it allows for immediate access to terms and concepts and defines these adequately. For example, the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea: the "Amudarya," "Amu-Darya" (Oxus) and "Syrdarya" Rivers are well explained in historical and geographical terms, as is information on a people immediately affected by ecological and medical threats: the "Karakalpaks" (see also "Republic of Karakalpakstan"). The "Republic of Kazakhstan" and "the Republic of Uzbekistan" and their histories, economies, natural resource exploitation and agricultures are summarized over 13 pages. Furthermore, less well known data is included, and this makes the text both up-to-date and takes the readers down fascinating avenues of investigation, for example, the last "Turanian Tiger" was killed either in 1949 (in Karakalpakstan) or in 1968? The future of the "Greater Amurdarya Shovel-Nosed Sturgeon" and the "Snakehead" fish are problematic too. Indeed there is something in this text for environmentalist, policy analyst, and the inquisitive student. The eclectic nature of this book sets it apart from other narrowly focused academic works on Central Asia. The weakness of the alphabetical method of information organization in the case is the lack of cross-referencing offered; so the reader would need to have some knowledge of the Aral Sea problem or Central Asia to navigate the text. As a reference book and document to mankind's folly I would recommend this work for university libraries. Clearly, the story of the Aral Sea, the local people, wildlife and ecology is a desperately heart-rending episode in human interventionism, and is likely to be a losing battle for the governments of Uzbekistan (and Karakalpakstan) and Kazakhstan. Indeed, camels now tread the former seabed in places where in the 1960s and 1970s boats fished the waters of the fourth largest sea-lake in the world.

Sevket Akyildiz Ph. D. (SOAS, London, 2011)