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Part II: The Aral Sea

4. Creeping environmental problems in the Aral Sea basin
5. The Aral Sea and socio-economic development
6. Satellite image maps of the Aral Sea and Central Asia
7. Voices from the region


4. Creeping environmental problems in the Aral Sea basin

Introduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems
Characteristics of CEPs
CEPs and the Aral region
Concluding comments and a call for research

Michael H. Glantz


With Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) in the mid 1980s, the international community received confirmation of what it had been able to detect from space at least since the mid-1970s - the gradual decline of the Aral Sea. Since the early 1960s, when the leaders of the Soviet Union embarked on a programme to increase river diversions in order to expand irrigated cotton production in this arid region, the sealevel has declined about 15 metres or so and its surface area has been reduced by half. Primary attention of policy makers and, later, multilateral development banks and environmental groups was focused on the declining Aral Sea level. This was the most visible impact from space and on the ground of reduced flow of the sea's two major feeder rivers, the Amudarya and the Syrdarya.

Although the decline in the level of the Aral Sea was the most obvious environmental change in the basin, there were several other adverse environmental changes as well. Because of the "creeping" nature of these environment-related changes (pollution of river and sea water, air quality degradation, deterioration of human health, desertification, and so forth), decision makers have had difficulty in addressing ways to slow down, arrest, or reverse the gradually occurring adverse changes. Perhaps the notion of creeping environmental problems (of which sealevel change is but one) can serve as an "umbrella" notion to encompass several of the environmental changes occurring in the Aral Sea basin. Eventually, however, these incremental changes have increasingly been perceived by some observers as having accumulated to such an extent as to have turned into crises. If Central Asian republics in the Aral basin can be convinced to address slow-onset, low-grade, long-term, cumulative environmental changes cooperatively and in a timely way, the adverse consequences could be mitigated and, perhaps, even averted.

The shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has captured the attention and interest of governments, environment and development organizations, the lay public, and the media around the globe (e.g. Orechkine, 1990; Ellis, 1990; The Economist, 1991,1994; O'Dy, 1991; UNU, 1992). Considered a quiet catastrophe, referred to in the former Soviet Union as a "Quiet Chernobyl" (e.g. Glantz and Zonn, 1991), one that has evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the past few decades, the demise of the Aral Sea has become acknowledged as one of the major human-induced environmental degradations of the twentieth century. The Aral basin was singled out by the International Geographical Union (IGU) in the early 1990s as one of the Earth's critical zones (see Kasperson et al., 1995).

Whereas societies respond (i.e. react) relatively quickly to step-like adverse environmental changes or to problems perceived by experts or elements of the public as crises, for example "rapid-onset hazards" (Palm, 1990), they have much more difficulty in developing awareness of the risks associated with slow-onset, low-grade change. This paper is as much about the nature of creeping environmental problems as it is about environmental change in the Aral Sea basin. It attempts to draw attention to the general notion of creeping environmental problems (Caps) and societal responses to them, to develop a framework for characterizing (Caps) in general, and to suggest the utility of applying that notion to recent environmental changes in the Aral Sea basin. The overriding objective of this chapter is not to provide the reader with a detailed assessment of creeping changes in the Aral Sea basin (for this assessment, see Glantz, 1998), but to spark discussion of ways to identify and overcome constraints on societal responses to creeping environmental change.

Introduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems

We are constantly bombarded in our daily lives with bad news about the environment. Some of that news is about environmental problems of a global nature and some of it is about problems at the local level. Some of these problems have long lead-times before their adverse consequences become apparent, whereas others develop over relatively shorter time-frames. The list of these environment-related problems is quite long and is still growing: air pollution, acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, droughts, famines, and the accumulation of nuclear and solid waste are the results of long-term, low-grade, and slow-onset cumulative processes. These kinds of problems can be called creeping environmental problems (CEPs) as opposed to rapid-onset natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, storm surges, riverine floods, and severe winter storms. The schematic diagrams in figures 4.1 and 4.2 illustrate some of the differences between these two types of environmental changes. Creeping environmental problems cut across academic disciplines, political ideologies, continents, and cultures.

A major feature that CEPs share is that a change in a creeping environmental problem does not make it much worse today than it was yesterday; nor is the rate or degree of change tomorrow likely to be much different from that of today. So societies (individuals as well as government bureaucrats) do not, for the most part, recognize changes severe enough to cause them to treat their environments any differently than they had on previous days. Yet incremental changes in environmental conditions accumulate over time with the eventual result that, after some perceived if not objectively defined threshold of change has been crossed, those unimportant imperceptible increments of change "suddenly" appear as major degradation. If no action is then taken, as is often the case, those incremental changes will likely continue to mount until a full-blown crisis emerges.

Fig. 4.1 Schematic of a rapid-onset natural hazard (Source: Burton and Hewett, 1974)

Fig. 4.2 Schematic of slow-onset (creeping) environmental problems (Source: Döös, 1994)

Many changes to the environment are not considered detrimental in their early stages and, if arrested early enough in the process, would not appear at all on anyone's list of environmental problems. Such changes would likely be viewed as environmental transformation and not as degradation. For example, the cutting down of a small part of a mangrove forest to create a shrimp pond would not necessarily signal a stage in the destruction of a mangrove forest ecosystem (transformation). If, however, numerous ponds were to be constructed in the same location, then the mangrove forest ecosystem and its interactions with other ecosystems would eventually cease (degradation).


At a workshop on "Adaptive Ecological Characterization," sociologist John Petterson (1995) noted the importance of thresholds in environmental change.

Ecosystems, regardless of how they are defined, must be viewed in the context of accelerated change in the dominant variable, i.e., the social, political, economic, technological, and other factors that have altered the larger environmental context of every ecosystem or subsystem. [Societal] change is not occurring in a linear fashion and, therefore, concern should be on thresholds at which irreversible consequences are initiated.

For each of the creeping environmental changes there may be identifiable thresholds beyond which continued degradation of the environment will increase the likelihood of irreversible changes in a societally favoured ecosystem. Thresholds, however, are easier to talk about than to detect. In fact, in many cases they may be identifiable only in retrospect, after they have been surpassed.

When discussing thresholds of awareness of environmental change, it is necessary to consider whose awareness we are concerned with. Levels of awareness of changes in the environment will increase as the environmental change persists and worsens. At first, for such (Caps) as deforestation and desertification, changes may be noted by individuals at the local level but may not be seen as a threat of any sort and may go unreported to local or regional authorities or to national researchers. For truly global issues such as global warming or stratospheric ozone depletion, it would likely be a scientific researcher who first noticed an incremental environmental change.

As the environmental change is believed to have intensified in time (i.e. taken on a faster rate), in space (i.e. affecting a larger surface area than expected), or in impact (i.e. adversely impinging on human activities), it may be brought to the attention of authorities by local officials and environmental researchers. At this level, such changes might capture the attention and interest of the media. A further deepening of the adverse consequences associated with the change could prompt awareness at the national policy-making level, as well as of the international media, which can internationalize awareness of what had originally been viewed as a local environmental problem. Who it is that first generates awareness of a creeping environmental change and of subsequent thresholds of awareness can vary from one region to the next and from one type of creeping environmental change to another: it could be a farmer, a scientist, a policy maker, a news reporter.

There are several subjectively based thresholds that could be identified for creeping environmental problems: a first threshold relates to awareness of an environmental change that has not yet been considered a problem; a second threshold relates to awareness that a previously undetected environmental change has become a problem; a third threshold relates to the realization that the problem has reached a crisis stage; and a fourth one relates to a threshold that leads to concerted action to cope with the problem. With regard to the CO2 issue, the scientific community has chosen a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels of the pre-industrial era (about AD 1750) as an arbitrary indicator of a threshold. A doubling, however, is of no particular scientific significance. No major changes in the atmosphere are expected to occur once that level of atmospheric CO2 has been reached. Thus, it is a quantitative threshold that has been arbitrarily designated. Because these problems derive from slow-onset, low-grade, long-term, and cumulative environmental changes, it is not easy to identify universally accepted objective quantitative indicators of thresholds.

Steps of awareness

Threshold 1: Awareness of change

Agricultural people are busy with their daily routines and in most parts of the world that translates to human activities directly related to food production. Preoccupied with day-to-day efforts to eke out a living from the land, these people are likely to notice small changes in their environment. Those small changes are not considered to be an immediate problem, or perhaps even a problem at all. They are viewed as a modification or transformation of nature. In fact, such changes might at first be viewed as a precondition in the drive toward an improved quality of life for local inhabitants. Short-term benefits seem to override any concern about potential long-term implications of such small, seemingly benign, environmental changes. The rates of such change are not seen by anyone as threatening to human activities or to the long-term productivity of the environment. They may also be viewed as easily reversible.

Threshold 2: Awareness of a CEP

The recognition by an individual or a group that an environmental change has become a problem suggests that another threshold has been crossed. Not all observers will likely agree that a problem has emerged. Case histories of other CEPs, such as global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion, underscore that scientific uncertainties that surround an issue can be highlighted in such a way as to raise questions about whether the environment has changed significantly and, if so, whether that change had become a societal problem requiring action. This raises issues of risk acceptance, risk avoidance, and risk-making, with different elements in a society exhibiting one of these predispositions toward risk. The existence of opposing views notwithstanding, a threshold of awareness has been crossed that prompts the attention of decision makers at the regional or national levels of government.

Threshold 3: Crisis awareness

Usually, a "whistle blower" or a champion to lead the call for combating the CEP emerges when that problem reaches a crisis level. A crisis can be defined as a crossroad or critical turning point. It has also been defined as a critical decision point (e.g. short time to act, high threat, high cost of inaction).

In the risk assessment literature related to environmental issues (e.g. Kahneman et al., 1982), the notion of "dread risk" or "dread factor" has been used. A dread factor refers to a more ominous situation than crisis, in that it relates to a situation with a perceived lack of control, or with imminent catastrophic potential, or with fatal consequences. Crisis does not equate to dread. Resorting to the citing of a dread risk is a tactic that can backfire if the alleged dread status of the CEP is shown to be unsupported by facts. In generating societal belief that a critical threshold has been crossed and that a CEP demands immediate attention, the media (national and international) are often instrumental.

Threshold 4: Awareness of the need to act

Awareness of a crisis, however, often fails to translate directly into societal responses. By now the local community has likely become overwhelmed by the CEP and its local impacts. Only the national or international community can help them to cope with the CEP. However, as is often the case, given the degree of scientific and economic controversy (i.e. uncertainties) that usually surrounds CEPs, policy makers can choose to delay the enactment of coping policy responses. Thus, the last of the thresholds focuses on action, taken domestically or internationally.

Threshold 5: Action

What does it mean to "take action" on a creeping environmental problem? Although there is a wide range of possible actions that could be taken in the name of seeking to resolve a CEP, meaningful actions can be identified in objective terms for each CEP. Those actions would need to be defined in terms of the goals to be achieved by particular actions: slow down the rate of a creeping environmental change; arrest the progression of the change; reverse the direction of the change; restore the ecosystem. Actions taken at the lowest level of effectiveness (i.e. slow down the rate of the adverse change) can be challenged as ineffective by those who want to confront the problem more aggressively. Thus, responses to questions such as "have policy makers taken action" to combat desertification or deforestation or global warming will not necessarily be in agreement, because varying levels of actions in response to a CEP could be taken.

In sum, we need to identify thresholds and to recognize that they would likely vary from one region to another, even for the same type of environmental degradation. What is that threshold of awareness and of crisis? When is the appropriate time to act on a creeping environmental change (Glantz, 1994)? Before applying the notion of CEP to the Aral Sea basin, a close scrutiny of a variety of known CEPs could be instructive in identifying objective ways to recognize thresholds before they appear.

Characteristics of CEPs

Several general characteristics can be used to categorize CEPs into subgroups: time and space scales, rates of change, levels of scientific uncertainty, levels of visible degradation, the seemingly impersonal nature of the causes of CEPs or their effects (e.g. the tragedy of the commons), degree of politicization of an issue, reversibility of the CEP, etc.

The perceived rate at which an environmental change takes place is very important when it comes to the timing of societal responses to those changes. Although there may be ways to identify those rates quantitatively, it is often the perception of those rates that prompts action. To policy makers, as well as to the general public, rates of change are often as important, if not more so, than the magnitude of the change. Slow rates of change do not provoke societal concern, let alone response. Rapid rates tend to lead to rapid responses by decision makers. Yet rates of environmental change are often quite controversial. The scientific and popular literature on each CEP yields a broad range of rates with little agreement among them. For example, for desertification in the West African Sahel, rates of desertification vary by an order of magnitude; even the sign of the change has fallen into question (Tucker et al., 1991). For tropical deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, the variance is considerable, by a factor of seven (Paris) and Glantz, 1992). Interestingly, in the Brazilian case, that rate of change varied from one year to the next in the 1980s. Determining when specific CEP thresholds have been crossed is not an easy task.

The time-frame over which an environmental change develops into a full-blown environmental crisis affects the lead-time available for response by decision makers to any one of the various thresholds. Thus, perceptions about the need to respond to crisis situations can develop over long as well as short time-scales. Global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion are considered global changes that occur on a decades-to-centuries time-scale; deforestation, desertification, and inland sealevel changes are regional changes occurring from years to decades; droughts (and famines) are local- to regional-scale processes that develop over a period of several months to a few years.

It may seem odd to speak of, and lump together under the same "umbrella," creeping environmental problems that occur on various time-scales. One might ask, for example, if those concerned about famine avoidance can respond to that CEP in a matter of several months, why can't other decision makers respond to their CEP relatively quickly as well? To address this point, one needs to take into account the scope of the problem (its magnitude, intensity, duration, reversibility). Although scientists and policy makers may not know exactly when thresholds of environmental change will occur with regard to their CEP, they apparently believe they have enough lead time to act, once the environmental change appears to have become a crisis.

Generally speaking, scientific uncertainties will always surround CEPs. For example, in the 1970s, researchers drew attention to spreading deserts in the West African Sahel, using photographs and satellite imagery to support their views. However, some scientists have suggested that the total area affected by desertification around the world had actually decreased by the end of the 1980s (Tucker et al., 1991). Even with regard to ozone depletion, an issue on which most scientists agree, a small but vocal backlash group has continued to challenge the evidence of ozone depletion in Antarctica.

For most CEPs there is a minority voice, often loud, that focuses on scientific uncertainties, as opposed to emphasizing what is known. Such conflicting interactions among groups within the scientific community tend to weaken the resolve of non-scientists who are expected to act (the public, policy makers, the media). Given the state of scientific knowledge on most CEPs, one can likely find within the body of scientific literature viewpoints and quantitative information to support (or attack) any desired policy action. The selective use of information drawn from the scientific literature enables policy makers to pursue any decisions they wish, regardless of the reliability of the particular pieces of scientific information they choose to use. There is a need to collect and assess the wide range of rates in the scientific literature and in the popular media for each of the different CEPs, and to identify confidence limits for each of the plausible estimates (e.g. Parisi and Glantz, 1992).

Why do CEPs continue?

Creeping environmental problems change the environment in a negative, cumulative, and, at least for some period of time, invisible way. As a result of these minor insults to the environment over time, during which no obvious step-like changes occur, both governments and individuals tend to continue to view their "usual activities" as acceptable. They assume that their activities have little, if any, lasting impact on the environment. For many people, changing routine behaviour is not easy. As Eric Hoffer (1952, p. 3) suggested in his book The Ordeal of Change, "It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoyevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things, the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding." People fear change and, unless a crisis situation is perceived, they are not likely to behave differently in the absence of any incentive to do so.

Reasons (or excuses) for not taking action are many. For the global warming issue, one excuse for delaying a societal response has been its time-scale. If the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not expected to occur at least until the middle of the twenty-first century or later, why worry now? Why sacrifice (some would argue, squander) the scarce time (of politicians) and money (of societies) on such a distant problem? Yet, similar requests to delay responses also occur when confronted by creeping phenomena of much shorter time-scales, such as drought-related famines, sealevel decline, or degradation of urban water quality. Thus, creeping environmental problems can be defined in such a way that they can occur on several time-scales. The time factor becomes an important characteristic of a CEP, when the rate at which the CEP progresses is compared with the timing of the appearance of its adverse consequences.

Another reason fostering inaction on Caps relates to scientific uncertainty. For example, why act at all regarding the global warming issue, when the scientific information about this particular CEP is sometimes contradictory and the remaining uncertainties are many? Yet, as suggested earlier, most environmental changes will likely be surrounded by scientific uncertainties. Nevertheless, policy makers are constantly forced to make policy decisions surrounded by uncertainty. Thus, whenever scientific uncertainty is used as an excuse for avoiding risks associated with decision-making, it should be challenged as a reason for delaying action.

Considerable discussion exists in the literature and the popular media about risk takers and those who are risk averse. The former are gamblers, whereas the latter tend to be more conservative in their approaches (and responses) to environmental change. Another related risk category that can be distinguished from these two existing ones is that of risk makers. These are decision makers whose decisions make risks for others but not necessarily for themselves. For example, reluctance to take action to slow down or stop desertification processes threatening a village far from the capital city where politicians live will likely have little political effect on decision makers at the national level. Their inaction generates growing risks for the distant inhabitants of a threatened village, but not necessarily for themselves. With regard to the declining Aral Sea level, in reality there were no adverse impacts on those in Moscow who made decisions that led to a declining Aral Sea level.

Most environmental problems do not affect an entire population of a country in a direct and visible way. At first, only those directly affected become concerned about local degradation. A central authority is likely to view that degradation as a local problem, even though similar processes may be occurring in other parts of the country (e.g. "we don't care if the Aral Sea disappears," "we don't care if species in the tropical rainforest disappear"). How, then, might the interest of central authorities (or unaffected citizens) in a local or regional creeping environmental problem be developed and sustained? The bottom line is that risk makers are often not held accountable for the environmental crises that result from their decisions.

Yet another constraint on timely action to address a CEP involves the fact that what appears to be an environmental crisis to one person may be viewed as an opportunity to someone else. For example, whereas some people may be concerned about environmental degradation, others might believe such degradation is the necessary result of a trade-off for economic development. Once past a crisis (i.e. defined as a crossroad or turning point), however, there may be a dread factor, an apocalyptic point beyond crisis from which there is no return to sustainability for the environment or the society dependent on it. With regard to the global warming issue, there have been several attempts by scientists to identify dread factors in order to provoke meaningful action from policy makers to combat it. With regard to any particular environmental problem, one can usually find examples of the use of dread factors to prompt political and societal action. The global warming situation provides a useful example of this.

In the mid-1970s modelling experiments proposed the use of 4 x CO2 (4 times pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide) as well as 2 x CO2 experiments. The 4x scenarios, however, were highly unrealistic and were dropped. A doubling of pre-industrial levels of CO2 then took on the aura of a dread factor, although there was really nothing significant about using a doubling as a threshold of change. In the late 1970s, some scientists raised concern about the possibility of a breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet, globally raising the sealevel rapidly by 8 metres or so. Further scientific research sharply reduced the probability of such an event. Yet another attempt to identify a dread factor was mention of the possibility of abrupt, highly disruptive changes in ocean currents over a period of a few decades (as opposed to centuries or millennia) in response to a warmer atmosphere (Broecker, 1987).

The search for an uncontestable crisis, if not dread risk, in the global warming issue continues, because previous dread factors have not captured the sustained concern of the public or of politicians. The lack of a dread risk notwithstanding, governments, for a variety of reasons, slowly began to cooperate on this CEP through the activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN Climate Convention was ratified on 21 March 1994 and, a year later, the first international Conference of the Parties was convened in Berlin, Germany, to discuss its implementation.

Döös (1994), using greenhouse gas emissions as an example, has suggested some reasons why actions by society to protect the environment have been slow and insufficient. He focused on the availability of objective scientific information: the reluctance of scientists to downplay scientific uncertainty, the focus by the media on sensational news rather than on scientific facts, deliberate neglect of scientific information for political and other reasons.

Jamieson (1991) identified and briefly summarized several reasons that affect timely policy response to climate change, which is a creeping environmental problem. Replacing the phrase "climate change" with CEP provides us with another set of factors that tend to delay societal responses to this type of environmental problem. Some of these are as follows:

1. The audience for [CEP] information is extremely diverse and the same message can mean different things to different people.

2. Many people... are not scientifically equipped to understand more than the rudiments of a [CEP] issue.

3. The impacts of a [CEP] are perhaps more correctly represented probabilistically.... In general, people are notoriously bad at assimilating and reasoning about probabilistic information.

4. Significant [CEP] is a long-term, rather than a near-term, possibility. Most people, including most policymakers, are not used to thinking about such long-term events.

5. Many of the [CEP] effects on human welfare will be relatively invisible.... People have difficulty linking... indirect impacts to an initial cause.

6. The onset of a [CEP] is gradual and uncertain, rather than dramatic and obvious.

Jamieson concluded that "our political and institutional structures are unlikely to respond aggressively enough to be helpful in the near term. So, for the present, the resource managers will be left to their own devices. The de facto policy is likely to be one of incrementalism or 'muddling through"' (Jamieson, 1991, p. 327).

The possibility also exists that, for issues as insidious as global warming, changes in climate at a regional or local level might not provide enough proof (e.g. the fingerprint) of a global climate change, because some Caps may not exhibit a readily identifiable threshold of change. US Vice President Gore has often suggested that "[w]e are not unlike the laboratory frog that, when dropped into a pot of boiling water, quickly jumps out. But when placed in lukewarm water that is slowly heated, the frog will remain there until it is rescued" (Gore, 1992, p. 42).

The following section is an attempt to identify a set of environmental changes in the Aral Sea basin that can be viewed as creeping environmental problems. It provides a brief description of each CEP and issues a call for an intensive research effort to fill in a CEP matrix for each, identifying as best as possible thresholds of awareness alluded to earlier in the chapter. The region provides, in essence, a living laboratory for geographers, biologists, political scientists, water resource specialists, environmental philosophers, politicians, among others, where they can see, within the course of one generation, the impacts of economic decisions that were devoid of societal or environmental considerations.

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