Central Asia's failing heart

Wednesday, July 31, 1991

By Fred Weir

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan, USSR — Here, in the arid steppes of Soviet Central Asia, any discussion about Uzbekistan's place in a restructured Soviet Union always comes down to a single politically explosive issue: water. The region is facing one of the world's worst ecological disasters thanks to decades-long mismanagement of its water resources.

At a press conference in Tashkent in May, Uzbek President Islam Karimov made this stand explicit. Uzbekistan, he said, will require that a solution to its long-term water crisis be built into the Union Treaty.

The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake on earth and the pumping heart of Central Asia's climatic system, is drying up. In consequence, weather patterns are becoming freakish. A new, salty desert, centred on the old seabed, is marching outward via windstorms to threaten the livelihood of millions.

As one flies over the Aral Sea, the stages of its disappearance are clearly visible, looking much like dirty rings on a bathtub. Rumours that the lake has split into pieces are true: two shrunken blue pools are all that remain amid a moonscape marked by white salt swirls.

Until the region's two major rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, were dammed in the 1960s and their waters diverted to cotton and rice cultivation, the Aral was a true inland sea. I flew over it in 1971 and recall a vast unbroken expanse of blue water, a far cry from today's parched remnant.

Half gone

The Aral has lost almost half its volume through evaporation in just 30 years, and its average depth has plunged from 54 to 38 metres. The seashore has receded in places up to 95 kilometres, leaving port towns and fleets of fishing boats stranded amid sand dunes.

Before the rivers were dammed, some 54 cubic km of water used to flow into the Aral Sea annually from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. During the 1980s, almost none reached the sea. Last year 8.3 cubic miles trickled in, but Uzbek scientists say the minimum inflow required just to stabilise the Aral at its present size would be 29 cubic km per year.

Uzbeks blame all this on the "borba za kholpok" ("struggle for cotton") — a demanding regime of monoculture imposed upon the region by Moscow economic planners

after World War II. Cultivated land in Central Asia was aggressively expanded, from 2.9 million hectares in 1950 to 6.9 million ha today. More than half of this is devoted to cotton.

"We were so enthusiastic about it, people used to say we would gladly grow cotton on our rooftops", says Damir Jdgarov, secretary of the Bukhara regional Communist Party. "But we have distorted our economy and we are killing the Aral Sea."

In the struggle for cotton, water was viewed as an expendable resource. It was flooded onto fields and carelessly sloughed off, frequently into the desert. According to one estimate, the amount of stagnant — and pesticide-contaminated — water pooling uselessly in the Uzbek and Turkmenian deserts is equal to the entire shortfall of the Aral Sea.

Now the catastrophe has come home. Every year some 70 million tons of salt-laced sand is lifted by windstorms from the former sea floor and dumped on irrigated crop lands around the Aral basin.

At the 22nd Congress collective farm in the Bukhara region, farmers were cleaning up after their third violent hailstorm in less than a month. Roofs were torn off buildings, cattle were killed and 500 fruit trees were destroyed.

High Stakes

"This is because of the Aral Sea", says farm chairperson Kakhar Assadov, gesturing to the west, where the dying lake is some 390 km distant. "We never had storms like this. The sea used to act as a wind filter; it regulated our climate. Now the Aral is disappearing, and our livelihood is going with it."

Assadov shows a field of dead cotton plants, and points out a thin film of salt coating the soil."The salt is from the Aral seabed", he says. "It blows in with the wind. They say they find this salt as far away as India. It forces us to use even more water to flush it out of the fields."

The stakes for the Soviet Union are very high indeed: this region produces 95% of the country's cotton, 40% of its rice and 35% of its fruit.

The human dimensions of the Aral tragedy are also staggering. The traditional inhabitants of the Aral shore, the Karakalpaks, an ethnic group numbering just over a million, face a bleak future. They have already lost their once-thriving fishing industry — an early victim of the evaporating sea's rising salinity.

Chemical residues turning up in their territory, in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, have been alarming Soviet scientists for years. According to some reports, Central Asian

farmers for decades doused their fields with up to 20 times the permitted level of pesticides in the great struggle to exceed the cotton quotas.

In consequence, infant mortality in the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic, brought down to almost modern levels during earlier years, has been sharply rising since the 1960s. According to Professor Abdulakhat Turapovich, an ecological specialist with the Uzbek Supreme Soviet, "The rate of deaths per thousand live births in Karakalpakia jumped from 46.5 to 52 from 1980 to 1989. We've seen a huge increase in liver and kidney diseases due to toxic water supplies. It's an unmitigated disaster for these people."

Diversion plans

For most Uzbek officials, the bottom line is that the region needs more water. In his press conference, President Karimov argued passionately for the revival of an old Brezhnev-era plan to divert two Siberian rivers, the Ob and the Irtysh, and make them flow south to Central Asia instead of into the Arctic Ocean.

That project was cancelled in 1986, in the first flush of perestroika, as too expensive and too ecologically uncertain. Resistance to it had been building for years, led by a number of prominent Russian writers who charged that Central Asians had squandered their water resources and the Russian republic had no obligation to endanger its own environment to replenish them.

Karimov now insists that the water was lost in the service of the whole country and under orders from Moscow. He also points out that the monoculture economy has left Uzbekistan with a standard of living just half the overall Soviet average.

Quite apart from the need to restore the Aral Sea, says Karimov, there is the matter of developing the Uzbek economy. The population of Central Asia is exploding — it will double from 30 to 60 million over the next 20 years — and without more water there will be no possibility to feed and provide jobs for all those people.

The Uzbek leader argues, however, that "the idea that we want to take whole rivers from Siberia is nonsense." The plan Karimov has in mind would involve a 1900 km canal from the Tobolsk region of Siberia, to bring about 5% of the Ob-Irtysh basin's water into Central Asia.

"And what will we do with Siberia water?", asks Karimov. "We'll grow cotton, melons, tomatoes and rice, and ship them to other parts of the country."

A simpler plan also under discussion involves digging a 580 km

channel from the Caspian Sea to refill the Aral Sea. This sounds seductive because it happens that the level of the Caspian has been rising over recent years.

However, scientists I spoke with last year in Daghestan, in the northern Caspian area, were violently against that idea. They say the Caspian rises and falls periodically, in patterns no-one can predict. The Caspian has a shallow, sloping shelf, they say, and any significant water loss could expose thousands of square kilometres of sea floor, with disastrous consequences for fish and wildlife, particularly in the fragile Volga River delta.

Conservation

The environment movement in Russia, and the tiny Uzbek popular front, Birlak, have argued that Central Asia's farmers must learn modern water conservation techniques, build concrete-lined water channels, use drip-irrigation methods and recycle. Above all, they say, Uzbekistan must abandon monoculture — the thirsty cotton and rice crops — in favor of more appropriate forms of agriculture.

Birlak also opposes any water-diversion scheme on the political grounds that it would increase Uzbekistan's entanglement with the Soviet Union at a time when the republic should seek independence.

Says Professor Turapovich, "We have already decreased cotton production, from 6 million tons in 1983 to less than 5 million last year. We've managed to reduce annual use of irrigation water ... over the same period. Of course this is not much, not nearly enough."

Uzbek officials say that, no matter how existing water resources are handled, there will not be enough for the future needs of the region's ballooning population. And if the Soviet Union wants to continue receiving cotton, rice and fruit from Central Asia, they say, it is going to have to satisfy the objective requirement for more water.

Furthermore, say the Uzbeks, the Aral Sea is not just a local, but a global, cataclysm. If the sea is ever to be regenerated, a great deal of water is going to have to come from somewhere.

"We need more water, that's the root of everything", says Bukhara Communist Party leader Jdgarov. "We have good land, sun and people. Uzbekistan will be a garden if we have water. If not, it will be a desert."

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