“You must remember, the Aral Sea is not only an ecological catastrophe,”
points out former communist party official Abdikirim Tleyov. “It is above
all a human one.” (People and the Planet, Vol4 Num2 1995)
Imagine you are flying high above the earth, over barren, rocky mountains. All about you is the monochrome color of the earth and then your eye notices a long slim blue streak at it winds its way from these mountains. You follow the shimmering water way and are greeted with green life all along its banks. As miles upon countless miles pass by, this great river grows wider and thicker as tributaries feed into it. Eventually, after what seems like a journey of days you come upon the mouth of the river. This great lifeline in an otherwise dead land empties out into a vast body of water, so wide that your eyes cannot fathom its far banks. All along this sea are settlements and cities.
If one guesses that this is the Nile, one cannot be further from right. Instead the mentioned river is the Amu Darya, where it and several smaller such rivers originate in the mountainous lands of Kyrgistan and Tajikistan, flowing through the lands of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and eventually into the Aral Sea, located in western Uzbekistan. It has been so since time immortal and long before man arrived upon the banks of the great Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland lake in the world.
The above scene would have been reminiscent of any historical time before 1958 when the Soviet Union, under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, constructed two enormous canals and many subsidiary canals in a bid to conduct collective farming and to create cotton as an export, a “white gold” to gain hard currency. A present day over flight of the same region would now show a scene of the same great river, except that as it flows, it becomes smaller and smaller until literally only a trickle of it and its sister rivers ever reaches the great Aral Sea. Except that the great Aral Sea is no longer so great. Instead it is less than a third of its original size and has really become three loosely connected bodies of water.
The sea is now less than a third of its original size and is really now three bodies of water. What the flyer will now notice is abandoned cities and settlements lying along what had once been a rich coast but is now nothing more then a salty wasteland. Great rusty hulls of marooned ships litter the waste land, all that remains as testament of a major fishing industry that in 1957 brought in fifty two thousand tons of fish to feed the local population and to export to the far reaches of the Soviet Union.
Only four of the two dozen species of fish survive in what is now three large and only slightly connected salt lakes.
The Aral Sea was originally a body of water of vast proportions for its deep in land position. Originally it covered 66,100 square kilometers of surface area with an average depth of 16.1 meters and a maximum depth of 68 meters. Now, only 40 years after the opening of the great canals up stream, the sea is less then 27,000 square kilometers in size and shrinking quickly. Already almost sixty percent of the water volume has been lost and the rate is accelerating as the local climate becomes more and more desert like. Presently the Aral’s sea level has fallen to 14 meters and its salt content has tripled from its previous one percent.
At its height, the Aral Sea provided a strong moderation effect for the local environment and climate. Situated in the middle of a vast and inhospitable rock desert, the Aral Sea acted as a giant air conditioner during the summer months and as a warming basin during the freezing, dry winters. It also provided much evaporation to help with the lacking local rainfalls. Such was its affects, that it allowed for an otherwise impossible growing season. Since its decline, the seasons have become more continental in nature with the growing season dropping to only 180 days.
What is ironic, is that over 90% of its tributary waters are used to irrigate the vast cotton and rice fields. Cotton requires a 200 day growing season. Thus the very reason these waters are pulled off has helped doom that industry. Yet nothing is being done to concretely change this intolerable situation.
Desertification has become a serious and deadly problem for the whole of the region. The salt plains that were once covered by the waters of the Aral and it’s moderate climate, are now prone to heavy dust storms that annually whip up to 75 million tons of dust and salt into the atmosphere, helping to further destroy the local and some times distant environments in cumulative effects. Dust from the Aral has been found as far away as Belarus, over a thousand kilometers away. This dust and salt, combined with large amounts of pesticide and herbicide residues have created real and catastrophic health risks to the local population on a level found no where else on earth. Locally, the wild life supporting wetlands have all but disappeared from a previous 550,000 hectares to a modern 20,000 hectares. With them have gone not only a large amount of the local wild life but a huge and thriving muskrat fur industry that at one time provided massive amounts of fur for all of the Soviet Union
But to truly understand the disaster of the Aral, one must look at the people for whom these irrigation canals were originally built by the leadership of the former Soviet Union through its centralized planning, located a thousand kilometers away.
For this example, this paper will look at the town of Muynak, located along what had once been a generous delta of the Amu Darya River. The large town is a shadow of its former self with only two thousand or so people remaining.
In 1957 the city accounted for half of the entire fish catch of the Aral Sea, some 26,000 tons of fish. It also farmed over one point one million muskrat skins for the various furring industries of the Soviet Union. In and around it there were twelve state fishing farms dedicated solely to the Aral. Overall, it was a thriving city with a wealth population, by Soviet standards.
In 1962, Muynak was no longer on a delta but located on a peninsula. By 1970 this was no longer the case. By that year, the sea had receded ten kilometers from its ports. By 1980 the sea was over 40 kilometers away. Fishermen struggled to get to the water in trucks across the barren plain, their ships forgotten, rusting on that same plain. By 1982 all commercial fishing had stopped, not just in Muynak but throughout the Aral Sea basin. By the time of 1995 rolled around, the Aral’s once rich waters had receded over seventy kilometers from the once rich city.
Instead of the once rich wetlands that had surrounded Muynak, only desolate wasteland remains. As the people lost hope in fishing, they turned to agriculture and herding but even this has collapsed along with the biosphere. The health conditions of Muynak, along with all the peoples living in the Basin and to a lesser degree along the rivers that once fed it, some fifty five million people in all, have deteriated to unacceptable conditions.
In a report in the respected journal, People and the Planet, Don Hinrichsen says that
over one million people living in the country are under immediate and continued health threats from toxic pollution. (People and the Planet, Vol4 Num2 1995)
Over seventy percent of the remaining two thousand residents of the city have ‘pre-cancerous’ conditions. The towns death rate has sky rocketed up to 100/1000. The health reasons for this are legion and threaten to wipe out the remaining populations within a few decades.
We have high levels of heavy metals, salts and other toxic substances in our drinking
water, and the bulk of our vegetables are contaminated with organschlorine pesticides
such as DDT which is till here in great quantities.” Dr Oral Ataniyazova (People and
the Planet, Vol4 Num2 1995)
The doctor goes on to describe the situation of his people in the region as:
As a consequence, says Dr. Ataniyazova, “our people are dieing like flies. Karakalpakia
[note: this is a province along the northern Aral Sea within Uzbekistan and is of a different ethnic make up then the Uzbekistanies] has the highest level of maternal and infant mortality in the Former Soviet Union.” A regional health survey has shown that in the last ten to fifteen years kidney and liver disease, especially cancers, have increased by more then 30 fold, arthritic diseases by 60 fold and chronic bronchitis by 30 fold.” (People and the Planet, Vol4 Num2 1995)
Even grimmer figures exist on the same population. Over twenty percent of the women from ages 13 to 19 suffer from kidney disease, twenty three percent of the women in the same age group have thyroid dysfunction. And eighty percent of all women are anemic. Throughout the basin, birth defects are a common occurrence, as even those people living upriver of the pollution that is pumped along with the trickle of water that makes it down to the Aral, still suffer from the chemicals that are brought back mixed with the dust and the wind. Particularly because of the sudden increase in dust storms, tuberculosis and allergies have also been on the rise throughout the region, while typhoid, viral hepatitis and throat cancer are three times higher then the national average of Uzbekistan.
Now that the problem and its true scope has been identified, a logical follow on question would be: but what is being done about this? To put it plainly, very little to nothing. While it would be simple to blame this all on the Soviet rigid and careless system, and it was, the truth of the matter is, it has been 18 very long and very disastrous years since the fall of the Soviet Union and since then little has changed for the better.
The region, Central Asia, is in total political chaos and the countries involved are in economic freefall. None of the up river countries wish to restrict their use or pollution of the rivers that feed the Aral, even though they themselves suffer and their poor irrigation, of which 60% of the water is lost, have helped destroy the very fields it was meant to create.
To make things worse, if that is possible, the Uzbeks and Kazaks are fighting a water war. Kazakhstan, with $80 million in loans from the World Bank has built the Syr-Daria damn which has cut off the eastern/northern portion of the Aral from the rest, allowing the water to be saved. The hope is to restore some of the fishing industry in the region.
Uzbekistan, located to the south, has fully cut off the flow of the Amu-Daria, one of the main life lines. Most of the peoples of the Aral Sea basin are of a different ethnicity then the predominant Uzbekistanies, they are Karakalpaks. They make up only some two million people out of a nation of 22 million. For this reason, the little money that the government does receive from outside aid agencies, it does not deem necessary to share with its suffering province. As resources and survival grows scarce, armed conflict will surely follow.
Under the former Soviet Union, there was one solution that was to be implemented. The Ob River that flows north through Siberia was to be diverted into the Aral Sea. While this may have saved the Aral, which is still in doubt since it to would have been used for further agriculture, the diversion would have created another ecological disaster in its own right. Thankfully, under Gorbachov, this plan was scrapped.
In the end, the predictions for the Aral are grim and are only getting grimmer. Of course, if the water were to be returned, the conditions of the sea would be reversed though this would take several decades. As for the local wild life, that would take many more years to renew. The local extinct species are gone for good, short of a some miracle of cloning. The rest of the wild life can be reintroduced. The ruined agricultural fields will take many more years to revive. Unfortunately this is not taking into account the fractured nature of the local politics and that the up river nations are trying desperately to drain ever last drop of water out of the tributary rivers to irrigate the very fields that are in turn destroyed by the desertification that is then caused. Short sighted and termed economic planning is destroying the future of the region. Short of an unlikely reunification of the Former Soviet republics into one government, there is little hope for any of these nations to suddenly decide to work closely together.
As for the so called Green organizations around the world, they show even less concern. This area is not as sexy as the Amazon, not as interesting as whales and pulls no heart strings like polar bears. However, unlike those three, this is very much a real disaster, one that will continue to spread and plunge millions more into pain and poverty.
A political and economic solution is of course possible, and many treaties have been signed, though most are not worth the paper they are written on. Only through concerted effort to bring all parties to the table can a solution be reached. Short of that, the continued destruction of the environment will cause direct threat to Russia's western Siberian plain and southern agricultural regions and may just be the Causa Bella for a full Russian military return to the region.
Imperialism for the sake of environmental survival? At this point, why not?