Decline of Aral Sea is bitter legacy of Soviet central planning

July 20, 1992|By Laura Le Cornu | Laura Le Cornu,Contributing Writer

NUKUS, Uzbekistan -- Not too long ago the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. Now it is the sixth.

What happened to the Aral Sea is being pointed to as a sign of the long-term consequences of a Soviet development policy that blatantly neglected environmental concerns.

"The Kremlin is to blame for this tragedy," said Orazbay Abdirahmonov, head of the Committee for the Protection of the Aral Sea. Referring to the many small lakes that remain in the vicinity of the Aral's receding shoreline, he said, "There is enough water to save the lakes, but not the Aral."

Under Communist rule, a cotton monoculture was developed in Uzbekistan, the largest and most populous of the former Central Asian republics. But the massive irrigation, fertilization and chemical spraying requirements of growing cotton caused major environmental damage and prevented efforts to develop other crops in this sleepy republic, now the third-largest cotton producer in the world.

Uzbek officials say the Aral Sea has shrunk to half its original volume since the early 1960s, to around 10.5 billion cubic feet. The sea's surface has contracted from 41,300 square miles in the 1960s to around 21,750 square miles, and its average depth has decreased from around 215 feet to 120 feet.

Local environmental authorities say the Aral Sea is losing 1 billion cubic feet of water a year to evaporation.

The shrinking of the Aral Sea has had a profound impact on the population of Karakalpakistan, an autonomous region within Uzbekistan of 1.3 million people bordering the Uzbek part of the Aral.

Diseases caused by salt and unfiltered water -- including kidney stones, anemia and tuberculosis -- have increased in communities around the region, according to medical authorities Nukus, the regional capital.

"Beginning in the early 1960s, we have seen a steady upward increase in illnesses due to unsanitary water from the Aral Sea," said Dr. Ziba Sersivenova, director of the children's and mothers' clinic in Nukus. Infants age 1 and under are most affected by exposure to unsanitary water, she said.

"The only solution is clean water," said Dr. Sersivenova, who has worked at the clinic for 16 years. About 35 percent of the clinic's patients are affected by illnesses related to the Aral Sea, she said.

The Aral's coastal towns also have been severely affected. Muynak, a prosperous fishing community in the early 1960s, has seen its population cut in half to around 26,000.

The region's fish-processing industry, which supplied some 50,000 tons each year to the rest of the Soviet Union in World War II, has shut down, causing widespread unemployment and large-scale emigration.

"Every family was involved in the fishing industry around the Aral," said Mr. Abdirahmonov. "The sea was food for the population. Now, there is no water, no food, no work. Many people are sick. Many children have died."

More than 15 species of fish have died out because of the dangerously high salt content of the Aral. Only the kambala, whose eggs are brought in from the Pacific Ocean, can now survive. Only about 80 of 200 species of birds remain.

Aral water contains about an ounce of salt per quart -- four times the amount in the early 1960s, local environmental officials say.

The Committee for the Protection of the Aral Sea, set up in Nukus in 1990, publishes two journals and one newspaper.

"We are against anyone who is threatening the livelihood of the Aral Sea," said Mr. Abdirahmonov, a writer and filmmaker,

dodging a question about the impact of the current government's cotton-production policy.

A movie produced by the committee about the Aral Sea plays more like a horror show than a documentary. The black-and-white film, set to a funerallike march, shows animal carcasses lying in salt marshes, children sick with tuberculosis and anemia, and abandoned homes.

Under an oppressive Communist regime in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, public reaction to environmental damage has been slow to develop in Karakalpakistan, a backward region largely cut off from the rest of the country. Foreign visitors must obtain a visa in Tashkent to enter Karakal pakistan.

Alleged negligence of the region, populated by Turkic peoples including Karakalpaks, Uzbeks and Kazaks, was a major grievance leveled at the Tashkent government during the region's recent struggle for independence.

According to 1991 statistics, the proportion of sicknesses found in Karakalpakistan is almost double the national average for Uzbekistan. Last year, 283 Karakalpak children per 1,000 were hospitalized, compared with the national average of 142.

In 1991, the region's Parliament declared its sovereignty, becoming the first autonomous region in Central Asia to do so.

"Our sovereignty is only on paper," said Mr. Abdirahmonov, a Karakalpak. "We are still tied economically to Tashkent."

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