The leader of Kazakhstan used a meeting with Russia’s President Medvedev this week to revive an old Soviet-era idea to divert Siberian rivers southwards to provide drinking water for Central Asia.
President Nazarbayev said the plan to make the Arctic-bound rivers change direction would help both Kazakhstan and Russia overcome future droughts.
Russia reportedly has about a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It has several major Siberian rivers flowing northwards whose sources are in or near Kazakhstan.
Central Asian states have quarrelled over plans by the region’s mountainous republics, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to dam rivers for hydro-electric power.
Such moves risk restricting water supplies downstream to the arid fields in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
From the 1930s onwards Russian scientists developed plans to alter the course of giant Siberian rivers. Instead of flowing out into the Arctic, they would instead provide a valuable source of water for the populous areas of Central Asia.
The project was buried by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.
But another scheme begun 20 years earlier did see the light of day. The idea was to irrigate the plains of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, helping cotton production.
The Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world, was gradually drained after the rivers feeding it were diverted.
But the scheme devastated a once-prosperous fishing industry, brought pollution and even reportedly local climate change – and has been described as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.