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The Aral Sea Disaster
the web of political, economic, and environmental crises unveiled by the collapse of the
Soviet Union, the problems least understood and most ignored are those of the former
Soviet empire's Asian colonies the five new nations of Central Asia. Yet the crisis of
Central Asia endangers political stability there and increases the risk of conflict in nearby
regions most critically, for the West, in Russia.
by James Rupert
Central Asia's future is darkened by one of the world's great, human-produced, ecological
disasters the drying up of the Aral Sea. The Aral (twice the size of Belgium) and its two
feeder rivers gave life to an oasis of wetlands and forest across the sear steppes and deserts
of Central Asia. In the 1960s, Soviet economic planners in Moscow decided that the Aral
oasis, its fish, fruits, and wildlife, were worth less than the cotton that could be grown and
sold if the watershed were converted into the world's largest cotton belt.
Moscow ordered that the state divert the waters of the Syr and Amu rivers into the
adjacent drylands to grow cotton. At least some planners prepared maps proposing that the
Aral Sea be replaced by a vast zone of cotton farms on its seabed. Ministries and state firms
razed forests to build cotton-growing state farms; speedily dug irrigation canals (without
lining them with clay or concrete); and injected the land heavily with fertilizers and
pesticides to meet Moscow's ever-increasing demand for cotton. White gold, it was called
in official propaganda.
The Central Asian Soviet bureaucracies especially those of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Turkmenistan did Moscow's bidding, but also used the money flowing in to multiply their
own wealth and power. Based primarily in upstream regions the Fergana Valley and
Tashkent these bureaucracies built their canals and dams and holding ponds not only to
irrigate cotton, but to hoard future supplies of scarce water for their own regions. Still, the
local authorities justified everything in the name of serving the Union. Propaganda called
cotton our treasure, being turned to the betterment of the Soviet peoples.
The destructiveness of the cotton plan emerged quickly, but was hidden by the state.
Deprived of much of its fresh water, the Aral began to shrink away from the fishing towns
that had been pulling 160 tons of fish each day from its rich waters. The sea grew salty; the
fish died. The Syr and Amu rivers became poisonous with agricultural chemicals and people
drinking its water began to sicken.
White patches of salt began appearing along the unlined canals, where irrigation had
waterlogged the soil, lifting underground salts to the surface and killing all vegetation. As
the salination disease spread and as the shriveling Aral exposed a seabed of sand and salt,
vast stretches of one-time forest and sea turned to moonscape. Now the Asian winds whip
the salt and chemical dust through towns, back onto farmlands and, researchers have
found, as far away as the Himalayas.
By the early 1980s, signs of trouble had leaked outside the Soviet Union. Official speeches
referred obliquely to problems. Essays and poems from the Central Asian Writers' Unions
took up themes of the land and its sickness.
As glasnost flowered in Moscow, Soviet journalists reported misery in Central Asia.
Workers were sick from the defoliants sprayed by airplanes on the fields (and them) to
speed the harvest. Birth defects and infant mortality were on the rise. The cotton wealth
was nowhere visible; Central Asians lived like residents of the third world. Women in
Central Asia were committing suicide in record numbers.
Only an authoritarian superpower government, immune to public accountability, could
have created and hidden such a disaster. But almost as soon as the catastrophe was
revealed, its creator died, leaving the mess in the lap of five impoverished and confused
newborn states.
Seeking a solution
The five Central Asian nations need help of almost every description. In Turkmenistan and
the Amu Darya (darya is Persian for river) delta, whole towns rely on irrigation runoff
heavy with chlorates, sulfates, pesticides and metals for drinking water. As much as 80
percent of drinking water in some areas has been unfit for human consumption and infant
mortality reaches 100 per thousand. Health clinics lack basic equipment such as syringes and
money for even basic services. Irrigation systems lose up to 40 percent of their water before
it reaches the fields and must be rebuilt. Salinated land must be restored. Help is needed
with fisheries, reforestation and the development of a private economy and improved
The new governments of Central Asia Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan did not create the region's water crisis and are thus not embarrassed to
seek help. They look overwhelmingly to the West, with its technological capability and
financial resources.
Still, the five republics have no tradition of cooperation: all political communication among
them was for years indirect, via Moscow. And, there are sharply competing interests, most
notably in the struggle for shares of water between upstream constituencies (Tajikistan,
Kyrgyzstan and the powerful Fergana and Tashkent regions of Uzbekistan) and
downstream interests (the politically weak Khorezm and Karakalpak regions of
Uzbekistan, the impoverished but resource-rich Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan).
Worst, at least three of the governments of Central Asia are distracted from serious efforts
to address the water crisis by their struggles to stay in power. Tajikistan's government has
changed three times in the past year amid a bloody civil war. There and in Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan, the former communist bureaucracies retain power largely as did their Soviet
parent with considerable suppression.
The Kazakh government of President Nursultan Nazarhayev has demonstrated
considerable pragmatism in addressing real problems and the Kyrgyz government of
President Askar Akayev has astonished the world by quickly sprouting a highly democratic
political system. But every republic is financially strapped and beset with ethnic and
regional divisions.
Development work in Central Asia will be an odd mixture of challenges from undeveloped
and industrialized regions. In many ways, the region has solid technical capacities and
skilled personnel to address its problems (for example in basic health and water supplies)
but simply lacks money.
In other cases, skills or technologies common in the West (advanced irrigation techniques,
basic computer capacity, basic business management) are almost unknown.
*James Rupert reports for the Washington Post. He was recently in Central Asia on an
Alicia Patterson Fellowship.
Originally published in Crosslines Volume 1(3), June, 1993