CHM 110 - CHEMISTRY AND ISSUES IN
Back to Topic 5 | | Menu | | Lecture/Outline
| | Issues
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,
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
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,
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
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
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,
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,
have created and hidden such a disaster. But almost as soon as the
revealed, its creator died, leaving the mess in the lap of five
impoverished and confused
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
The new governments of Central Asia Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
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
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
Kyrgyzstan and the powerful Fergana and Tashkent regions of Uzbekistan)
downstream interests (the politically weak Khorezm and Karakalpak
Uzbekistan, the impoverished but resource-rich Turkmenistan and
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
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
Development work in Central Asia will be an odd mixture of challenges
and industrialized regions. In many ways, the region has solid technical
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
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