Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 5

By Igor Rotar

The drying Aral Sea is one of the worst ecological disasters of the twentieth century. Located in the west of Central Asia, with part of it belonging to the republic of Karakalpakia (in northwestern Uzbekistan) and the rest belonging to Kazakhstan, in the 1960s it was still the world’s fourth-largest inland expanse of water. Its length was as many as 400 kilometers north to south and 280 kilometers east to west, with a total area of 66,900 square kilometers. Situated in the middle of the desert, the Aral Sea was a unique natural phenomenon–the greatest oasis in Central Asia. It was renowned for its pure and stunningly blue waters, its plentiful fish and its wonderful beaches. But today, the waters have shrunk more than three-fold and divided themselves into two separate lakes, the North and South Aral Seas.

This desiccation is the result of the Soviet leadership’s economic policy in Central Asia, formulated with the objective of overtaking the United States in cotton production. In the 1980s, cotton accounted for 75-80 percent of the crop yield in Central Asia, though the percentage rarely exceeds 50 percent elsewhere in the world. It used to be compulsory for schoolchildren, students and white collar workers to help with its harvest. Village children spent half the year working in the fields instead of doing schoolwork. In the 1980s, it got to the point that cotton was even planted in sports grounds. People living in Uzbekistan at that time have told me how the police would stop regular inter-town buses, only allowing them to continue on their way after their passengers had gathered the required quota of cotton.

Cotton is a very thirsty crop. The main sources for irrigation were Central Asia’s two biggest rivers, the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya, both of which feed the Aral. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the area of land under irrigation increased by 20 percent, and the volume of water drawn annually from the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya by 100 percent [from 45 to 90 cubic kilometers]. Another problem was that the cotton fields were treated liberally with chemical fertilizers. Contaminated water from the fields drained into the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya.

The ever-decreasing sea has brought about a marked change in the regional climate. Winters have become several degrees colder, and summers hotter. The average number of rain-free days was thirty in the 1950s, compared with 120-150 today. Sand and salt storms are now typical. These are especially dangerous because the salts are contaminated with pesticides, which have had damaging effects on public health. The number of animal species has declined from 173 to thirty-eight.

photoSome 100 kilometers north of the capital of Karakalpakia (a semi-autonomous republic within Uzbekistan), the town of Muynak has become a symbol of the tragedy. A flourishing fishing port thirty years ago, Muynak is today more than 100 kilometers inland. Even today, though, traces of the town’s earlier life can still be seen almost everywhere. On the approaches to the town, a monument bearing the municipal insignia portrays a fish. A memorial to the heroes of the Second World War stands on a promontory beyond which a desert now extends, though thirty years ago it overlooked the sea. The deepest impression is probably that made by Muynak’s former harbor, which is now known as a ship’s graveyard. Amidst the sands lie rusting ships, and herds of goats now graze between them.

Thirty years ago, Russians made up half the population of Muynak. These were descendants of the Old Believers (who rejected the reforms introduced by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon, in the second half of the 17th century). In fact, it was the Old Believers who settled in the region at that time who first taught the local Kazakhs and Karakalpaks to fish. Since then, fishing has been the main occupation of the townspeople. Today, though, there are hardly any Russians left in Muynak. Even the indigenous population is leaving. Wandering through Muynak, you keep stumbling across ruined buildings. The value of a house there is determined solely by the quality of its construction materials: Homes are bought for scrap and the building materials are taken away elsewhere. The primary reason for the emigration is unemployment, which is now approaching 100 percent. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this town is one of the poorest in Uzbekistan. In effect, the sole income for local families is the old age pension, which amounts to just a few U.S. dollars. Today Muynak is a ghost town: deserted streets with shops, cinemas and cultural venues all closed and crumbling.

photoPoverty is not Muynak’s only problem. At the bottom of the disappearing sea (now christened by the locals as Aralkum, by analogy with the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts) there are deposits of billions of tons of toxic salts, brought there over the decades with the water seeping from the fields into the rivers. In Muynak it is not unusual for a newborn child to refuse its mother’s milk: Its salt content is three to four times higher than normal levels. But the real scourge of Muynak is tuberculosis, which is present in almost every family. The spread of this disease is attributable to both extreme poverty and the ecological crisis.

Yet Muynak is merely the place where the problems of the Aral region are most clearly visible. In reality, the same misfortunes are typical of towns situated hundreds of kilometers farther inland. In the last three years, Karakalpakia has seen 100,000 TB cases. According to data from the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, TB levels in Karakalpakia are twice as high as the average for Uzbekistan, where the percentage of victims is already one of the highest amongst the former republics of the Soviet Union. As a result of the adverse ecological situation, over 90 percent of women in Karakalpakia suffer from anemia and the number of diseases in the region is growing–from birth defects and infant mortality to chronic respiratory diseases and cancer.

If you visit Karakalpakia in the summer, you get the impression that you have wandered into a snow-covered steppe instead of a desert covered with salt. The local population maintain that twenty years ago or so this was still unusual for the area. Around the capital of Karakalpakia you can see the former course of the Amu-Darya, over three kilometers wide; today most of this territory is covered in sand and the river, even in the wettest years, is no more than 100 meters across.

It would be unfair to suggest that the Uzbek authorities do not appreciate just how serious the Aral region’s ecological problems are. Yet they are simply unable to deal with them unaided. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is thus trying to resuscitate a grandiose project from Soviet times to divert water from the rivers of Siberia to Central Asia, a plan very popular in the 1980s, when the Soviet press even dubbed it the “project of the century.” Tellingly, its supporters were not remotely interested in the fate of the Aral Sea, focusing instead on using the Siberian water to increase cotton yields still more. However, academics did nevertheless manage to convince the Kremlin of the damaging ecological effects that the plan would have on Siberia, and it now seems that Moscow will under no circumstances reconsider the project. Tashkent’s efforts to promote the idea are probably only to be expected but are in essence reminiscent of a drowning man, desperately clutching at driftwood.

Igor Rotar is the Central Asia representative of the Keston Institute(UK).