The Multinational Monitor


U S S R   I N   C R I S I S

The Death of the Aral Sea

by Bridget Morris

The Aral Sea represents one of the Soviet Union's worst environmental catastrophes. With the Sea having shrunk to one- fifth of its former size, the fishing industry once supported by the Aral has been destroyed over the past 20 years. Much of the once-fertile land around the Sea has turned into desert and salt flats. Due to chemical pollution and erosion, the health of local people has deteriorated drastically and agricultural productivity in the region has plummeted. The birth rate is falling while infant mortality is rising. Only 38 of the 178 animal species of the region are still extant.

In August 1988, a group of prominent Soviet scientists, writers, doctors, agricultural experts, hydrologists and geographers toured the Aral Sea region on the "Aral-88 Expedition." They concluded that the region is rapidly dying and will become a toxic wasteland in just a few years unless immediate action is taken to restore it.

The roots of destruction

The expedition members determined that the Soviet government's attempt to make the entire region a large-scale independent cotton producer is the main cause of the Aral Sea catastrophe. This effort can be traced back to 1949, when the government promoted large-scale land reclamation programs to increase agricultural productivity. At the end of the 1960s, the Ministry of Water Management (Minvodkhoz) of the U.S.S.R. ordered the Central Asian republics to increase the water available for irrigation by taking it from the rivers, streams and other sources which normally feed into the Aral Sea. The planners did not consider the effect this might have on the Aral, even though several scientists warned that the Sea would shrink. The Minvodkhoz policy resulted in the construction of thousands of kilometers of new drainage and irrigation systems, dams and water reservoirs throughout the Central Asian republics. At the same time, land used to raise livestock and to grow traditional crops such as apricots, subtropical fruits and wheat, were planted with cotton. Thousands of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were dumped onto the cotton fields to promote high yields. The Minvodkhoz received billions of rubles for its Central Asian cotton project, and gained an enormous vested interest in the project's continuation.

Dimensions of the water shortfall

From 1990 to 2000, 12-15 cubic kilometers of water are expected to flow into the Aral Sea per year. But 34-47 cubic kilometers of water evaporate from the Aral Sea each year. Consequently, the Aral is expected to lose 250 of its current 450 cubic kilometers by early in the next century.

Over 640 cubic kilometers of water have already been lost from the Aral Sea over the past 20 years. The water level has dropped by 13 meters. Fishing towns and ports that once dotted the Aral Sea coast are now dozens of kilometers from the water. Members of the Aral-88 expedition who flew over the Aral Sea Basin saw old piers, ports and all kinds of fishing boats lying on desert sands and salt flats many kilometers away from the receding sea. A.A. Tursunov, chief of the laboratory at the Institute of Geography at the Academy of Science of Kazakstan, noted, "The now-evaporated portion of the Aral Sea covers 26,000 square kilometers, two-thirds of which is salty sand and dirt."

The town of Muynak, once a bustling village surrounded by lush green vegetation, has been devastated by the shrinking sea. Located on the edge of the Aral, Muynak once produced millions of pounds of fish for sale to the Soviet government. Now 50 kilometers away from the coast, it is surrounded by salt flats and arid land. Few residents remain.

The problem of the water siphoned from the Aral Sea is exacerbated by aging and poorly constructed irrigation and drainage systems throughout the Central Asian Republics. The drainage system malfunctions and large amounts of water leak out. The runoff of water causes soil erosion, salinization of large areas of fertile land and waste. (The Minvodkhoz never even considered a water conservation policy.) Some scientists estimate that 40 percent of the water is lost from the irrigation, drainage and water reservoir systems in the Central Asian Republics. N.G. Minashin, an agricultural scientist, notes that in 1960, "4-6,000 cubic meters were used to irrigate one hectare. But now it takes 10,000 cubic meters."

The Aral's shrinking has affected the local climate. The Sea contributed vital moisture and humidity to the air. The yearly evaporation of sea water into the air kept the temperature moderate most of the year and provided plenty of rainfall. As the Aral Sea shrank, the air lost its humidity and moisture. Now, the climate is much drier and the temperature is subject to much greater variation.

Poisoned waters

The uncontrolled use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on the cotton fields of the Aral region has polluted and salinized the soil of the surrounding land and the sea itself. Chemicals contaminated the soil, leaked into the groundwater and were transported into rivers, lakes, streams and the Aral Sea from both runoff and the faulty irrigation and drainage systems. The result: billions of tons of poisonous salts have covered 2.6 million hectares of the Aral Sea bottom. Tens of millions of tons of salt and chemicals, many of them toxic, evaporate into the air from the Aral Sea and are spread for long distances by the wind. The salt and chemical dust has been measured 2,000 miles away in the air over Byelorussia and Latvia.

"The Aral Sea as an independent ecosystem died 13-15 years ago," states N.V. Aladin, a biologist and associate at the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. The surviving animal species are not even native to the Aral Sea region, but were transplanted there from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Yet the spraying of chemicals and pesticides continues in many areas. The chairman of the Committee to Save the Aral Sea--the Union of Writers of Uzbekistan, P. Shermuckhamedov, says, "Associates at the Hydrometeorological Center of Uzbekistan analyzed the composition of water and concluded that pesticides such as B-58, metaphos, butyphos, hexachloran, lindane, DDT, DDE are still heavily used in spite of bans.... In 1988, there were 82 cases of high-level hexachloran pollution and 32 cases of lindane pollution." Many of these chemicals are found in large amounts in the major rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

One result of the water pollution is unsafe drinking water. The amount of poisonous chemicals and salts in the water is a "murderous dose" according to A.D. Deriglazov, assistant dean at the Second Moscow Medical Institute. He says that 80 percent of the population of the Central Asian republics lacks access to clean water.

Exposure to toxic chemicals is inevitable since the chemicals sprayed on crops end up in the water and locally raised produce and meat. In the Chimkent region, for example, the meat contains eight times the maximum permissible level of pesticides, and the fruits and vegetables contain 16 times the maximum permissible level of pesticides.

Uncontrolled use of pesticides and chemicals has had a devastating effect on the health of many people in the Central Asian region. The incidence of certain diseases increases sharply in populations right around the Aral Sea. For example, residents of Aralsk, located on the edge of the Aral, suffer from typhoid and hepatitis at rates 29 times higher than the national average. Jaundice and dysentery are also prevalent in the region. Health problems are exacerbated by insufficient medical facilities. In Uzbekistan, only one out of five hospitals has running water and only three out of ten have plumbing. There is a massive shortage of hospital beds.

Children have suffered the most. The mortality rate among children less than one year of age is 98-100 per 1,000. Child mortality is higher in the Central Asian republics than in Paraguay and 20 times higher than in Japan.

Many children will not nurse at their mothers' breasts because their milk is 3-4 times saltier than the norm due to the salinization of the region, which has increased the amount of salts in food and water. Refusing to nurse, many become malnourished and sick.

The cotton economy

The environmental costs of abandoning traditional farming systems for one based solely on cotton have not been offset by economic benefits for the people of the region. Much of the money earned from the cotton harvests has not been reinvested in the local economy. The central government in Moscow determines how to use all funds.

Over half of the 20 million rural residents of Central Asia are involved in the cotton industry; there is almost no other type of farming left.

Earnings from cotton exports are used to buy wheat, dairy products, meat and fruits--all of which were at one time abundantly available from the Central Asian republics.

While the production of cotton continues to increase, the standard of living for the average rural family continues to fall. A typical family of 7-8 earns 200-250 rubles per month, and average family incomes are decreasing. Vegetables and fruits purchased at the local markets are more expensive than those sold in Moscow. The typical Central Asian rural resident eats an average of 8 kilograms of meat per year, far below the national average of 65 kilograms per year.

Cotton dominates the society. Children and the elderly work in the fields. The children often work for long hours and miss many days of school. Local party and government members who spoke with members of the Aral-88 expedition denied that children miss school, since child labor is against the law. But local residents confirmed that it happens on a regular basis, and the expedition members frequently saw children working in the fields. In Turkmenistan, only 15.5 percent of the school-age children were in class during the cotton harvest in 1987.

Working in cotton fields is a hot and physically demanding job. Many field workers, including children and pregnant women, suffer from dehydration. Field workers are also exposed to large doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, leading many to contract cancer, anemia, dystrophy, allergies and jaundice.

A bleak future

Government officials of the Central Asian republics refuse to take responsibility for the Aral crisis and instead point fingers at each another. The Supreme Soviet rhetorically supports environmental protection and cleanup programs, but little has been done. In fact, the Soviet government assigned responsibility for reviving the Aral to the Minvodkhoz, the very institution responsible for the sea's demise. The Minvodkhoz has the same old ideas and plans: to reroute waters from Siberian rivers into the Aral Sea, to construct a series of dams and canals to accomplish this and to continue outdated land reclamation programs.

The Aral-88 expedition members argue that the Minvodkhoz program will waste 55-60 billion rubles while furthering the environmental destruction of the Aral. They say the Aral Sea and the surrounding area need immediate emergency aid. They propose three steps to gradually revitalize the region. First, water used for irrigation of cotton fields should be reduced by 20 percent, allowing more water to flow into the Aral Sea, and water should be rationed.

Second, the Aral-88 expedition members call for the reinstatement of traditional farming and an end to the cotton monopoly in the region. Cotton is a very thirsty crop; it has not been profitable or beneficial for the Soviet Union, and certainly not for the residents of Central Asia. The farmers of the region should be able to take advantage of the agricultural reforms such as long-term leasing and self-management. All farmers should be given the right to determine what they will produce. Cotton fields should be replaced with pastures for livestock, fruit orchards, wheat fields and vegetable fields. The crops and products which worked well in the past should be reintroduced. Central Asian Republics must work together to restore and revitalize the region.

The third and most controversial step will be to restore the original plant life to the defoliated Aral Sea bottom.

The expedition members also call for the Soviet government to take steps to restore and protect the health of the Central Asian peoples. They say it should launch a campaign to prevent people from drinking the local water and should ship bottled water into the region for popular consumption. The government will need to invest billions in building better medical facilities and in providing more physicians and uncontaminated food products. The Aral-88 members say their proposal should be considered an emergency aid program, and note that the Aral Sea catastrophe may cost much more than the Chernobyl disaster (8 billion rubles). For those in the region, there can be no doubt as to the urgency and massive scale of the crisis. T. Timirbayev, the first secretary of the Muynak Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan emphatically stated, "I support one of the suggestions made by the mission: it is necessary to proclaim that Muynak, Aral and Kazalinsky are ecological disasters and to send the necessary medicines and food products to these regions immediately and in the proper order to resolve the supply problems. We need emergency aid."

This article is based on "The Aral Catastrophe," an article which appeared in Novy Mir Magazine, No. 5, 1989.

Bridget Morris is a Russian translator and a researcher and analyst of Soviet affairs.

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