The Aral Sea: Now you see it, now you don't The sea that is no more

Georgie Anne Geyer

February 28, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- THE THREAT to this vast crossroads, this Central Asian republic, used to come from Moscow. It came palpably, in the form of autocratic orders, officious party bureaucrats and brutal security forces.

Today, probably the biggest threat to Uzbekistan's tentative new six-month-old independence is a strangely amorphous one. It comes on the winds, carrying salt and poisoned dust as far south as the ancient city of Samarkand and even to Kirgizstan on the Chinese border.

The new threat emerges directly from the death of the once-great Aral Sea. Until recent years, the Aral was a vast, shallow, oval-shaped sea, 25,659 square miles in area, the world's fourth-largest body of inland water. Today it is only a raw wound in the earth. As underwater mounds of salt and pesticides now open and begin to poison all of Central Asia, the sea has become a Sahara with ships marooned in what was the center.

"The most dangerous thing, as the Aral disappears, is the dust and the wind," Professor Pirmat Shermuhamedov, president of the Aral Sea Committee, told me in his office in the lovely Writer's Union here. "Its dust rises to a height of three miles and it spreads to more than 3,000 miles around.

"They have found the dust of the Aral in the tea plantations in Georgia and on the territory of India. The weather now is very hot in Tashkent and in Kirgizstan. The scientists say that if we lose the Aral, there could be snow in summer."

But the devastation on the Uzbeks' very doorstep threatens far worse to come. The land mass of Uzbekistan, so traditionally rich agriculturally it has been for centuries the stuff of Central Asian legend, is chemically poisoned. And as for the Kara-Kalpaks, the historic Turkic people who have the lousy luck to live around the Aral Sea, they are now dying "unnaturally," their children born with mental retardation.

Mohamed Salih, the intelligent writer, parliamentarian and leader the democratic ERK party, posed the reality in newly freed Uzbekistan. "The situation is not good," he told me, smoking Marlboros non-stop as he sat in his office on one of Tashkent's attractive old streets. "We have political problems, economic problems, problems in the standard of living. The levels of living have sunk very low."

Even after the first Uzbek elections of last year, in which the former communists won, barely, over Salih and his party, "Power didn't change," he said. "It is still in the same place."

But soon this impressive man, who, analysts say, would almost surely win a presidential election today, moved on to the real core of the problem: the catastrophic monoculture imposed colonially by Moscow for so many years. Uzbekistan remains a critical example of what the communist decisions of "the center" really did to these Turkic peoples.

"We've had monoculture in Uzbekistan for 70 years," he went on. "Eighty percent of the ground was given to cotton. But it won't be monoculture in the future. Today, we have cut it down to 60 percent, and we must begin to give land back to the people."

What happened in the Aral Sea area should stand as the primary example of ecological irresponsibility, madness and suicide of the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union. In its colonial quest for King Cotton, Moscow diverted not only the ancient waters of the Aral Sea, but also the waters of the two great rivers of Central Asia, the Syrdarya and the Amu Darya -- all to irrigate cotton! As the waters began to recede, the rigid bureaucrats of Moscow refused even to acknowledge the changes.

Arrogantly the masters of the Kremlin also simply imposed whatever cotton quota they dreamed up, thus mulcting rich soils. In his excellent book "The New Russians," Hedrick Smith tells the story of how, when a corrupt Uzbek communist leader suggested a cotton quota of 5.5 million tons of cotton, Leonid Brezhnev whispered, "Please, round it up. Add half a million more." And in that economic Disney World half a million was duly added.

There is no question that on some levels things are better now in Uzbekistan. Individual Communist Party members are still in power in the presidency of Islam Karimov, but the ERK is very active, with an amazing 40,000 members; and the original "popular movement," Birlik, which sparked the changes toward independence, is actively watching over the entire situation. Uzbekistan plans to create its own army, and there is some movement toward bringing in foreign investment, but to date only some.

It is the overweening problem of the Aral Sea that hangs over this period of transition and waiting, like a wraith of what could happen elsewhere and everywhere. But the worst thing is that, when officials toy with "answers," they talk about diverting still more Siberian rivers to raise the Aral's nearly non-existent water level, or they talk about diverting water from the Caspian Sea.

In short, they think about doing more of the same that killed the Aral Sea in the beginning. And this is the real problem in Russia and throughout these new "countries" of Central Asia. The mind-set has barely changed, and unless it changes -- through education abroad, through seriously transforming programs and policies at home -- the future will hold more Aral Seas, of the landscape and of the mind.

Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on international affairs.

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