The Syr Darya Basin is a relatively new international basin, which achieved this status in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It includes four riparian states: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. An understanding of the historical dynamics of the Syr Darya Basin is essential to make sense of the more recent situation in the region. Irrigation agriculture in Central Asia dates back to the tenth century at least, when gravity irrigation was used in oases along the middle reaches of the Syr Darya River, mainly in the plains of the Ferghana Valley. From Tsarist times until the beginning of the twentieth century, the irrigated area was expanded considerably. In the 1950s, to increase cotton production, the Soviet Union embarked upon an enormous land reclamation programme involving massive irrigation schemes that included huge dams and reservoirs. This eventually resulted in severe environmental degradation, since the water being used for cotton cultivation had previously flowed into the Aral Sea, where it had compensated for evaporation.
Photo by Alfred Diebold © in Khiva, Uzbekistan, old market along the city wall
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