Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Aral Tragedy

The gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea is having a devastating effect on coastal communities.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Over the last 35 years, Central Asia has seen the gradual disappearance of one of the largest internal water masses in the world, the Aral Sea. In its wake has come a severe economic crisis, which first gripped the Priaral region of Karakalpakistan - an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan.


"The drying up of the Aral Sea has brought the Karakalpak people to their knees. The water has gone and without it we cannot even make bread, illness and poverty have arrived," says Khubbiniyaz Ashirbekov, head of the International Fund for the Saving of the Aral, IFSA, in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakistan.


The water deficit and a drop in its quality have caused a degradation of the soil and the vegetation covering in the Amudarya and Syrdarya deltas, irreparable losses in flora and faunae, falls in fishing, fish farming and other traditional regional activities and the disruption of water transport links. Farming and animal rearing have also suffered.


As a salty lake-sea, the Aral had been a unique natural site with high biological productivity and a rich variety of living organisms. At present, according to Ashirbekov, the water level has fallen by 19.4 to 33.6 metres and it has become three times saltier. The volume of the sea has plummeted from 1,000 to only 177 cubic kilometres and its area has shrunk similarly from 60,000 to 24,900 square km.


The sad fate of the Aral is the result of a clash between the economy and ecology of the region. From the end of the 1950s, the Amurdarya and Syrdarya rivers, which fed the Aral, began shrinking as more and more of their waters were used to irrigate cotton and rice lands. A heavy use of fertilizers and chemicals to protect the rice and cotton plants caused pollution in the surrounding environment over ten times higher than national levels.


Karakalpakistan is an agrarian republic, so the disappearance of the sea has deprived people of their only chance to earn a living. "The sea is now 100 kilometers away from what used to be port towns, so the kids of former Aral fishermen have never even seen the sea - they've grown up in a desert, a salty, barren land," said Ashirbekov.


And today, according to the Tashkent branch of the IFSA, specialists, academics and sponsors have given up hope of saving the sea. "The Aral can no longer be saved, we've already buried that idea. Now our aim is to rehabilitate the population living in this disaster zone and to create viable conditions for them," said Serik Pernabekov, director of an IFSA project for the establishment of remoisturised zones in the Priaral. It is also hoped that sub-soil and drainage waters will create lake systems and remoisturised zones in the Amudarya delta.


However, Karakalpakistan inhabitants continue to experience chronic water shortages. They suffer the lowest standard of living in Uzbekistan and the highest levels of serious illness. For them, remoisturisation projects have barely improved matters.


"I planted my garden this spring but I will not be bringing in a harvest as there's nothing to water with. Today I watered from a bucket, but you can see that nothing is growing and those shoots that have appeared have turned yellow, burnt by the sun," said Ibraim Perzentbayev, a pensioner from a settlement in the Kegeil region around the city of Nukus.


According to the deputy head of the Kegeil region of Nukus, Gaibull Mirzambekov, similar problems afflict every home in the Priaral of northern Karakalpakistan. "The land is barren, and salt covers the surface like snow. But people continue to plant their gardens, even though they know their work will be for nothing."


The result is hunger and poverty. In Nukus, people reeled off lists of regions which are suffering badly. "In Muinak people don't eat meat, there's nothing there. Not long ago there was a case of an old man wandering off into the sands to die. He knew his family didn't have the money for a burial, so he just decided to go off and no one saw him again," said Gulnara Yembergenova, the director of the Gold Heritage of the Aral organisation.


The poverty and poor nutrition of the population of Karakalpakistan has led to a general decline in the health of the population. According to the head of the Nukus hospital Abdudzhamil Abdusattarov, there has been a massive increase in certain conditions. "The sickness rate of adults has reached 63 per cent, among children it's 60 per cent. So, for example, the number of malignant formations diagnosed in 1989 was 4,831. By 1997 it had risen to 7,601, a 157 per cent growth in the rate of sickness. Over 60 per cent of those tested had kidney stones, and the rate of tuberculosis is also frighteningly high," he said.


According to IFSA head in Nukus, Khubbiniyaz Ashirbekov, it would cost $50-60 billion to restore living conditions in Karakalpakistan. The states of Central Asia do not have those kinds of funds and while international organisations are full of promises at conferences, they only ever deliver small amounts of humanitarian aid. "We've been promised mountains of gold at all the conferences on the Aral, but we haven't even received a golden egg," he said. "The Americans sent beds made in 1935 for the military hospitals and someone else sent some second-hand clothing."


According to the Tashkent branch of the IFSA, in 1999 alone Uzbekistan spent $23.5 million on the problem, whereas over the past five years the world community - including the World Bank - has managed only 12 million dollars.


Umida Niyazova, the secretary of the Internews organisation, recounts that one American working in this region invited relatives from the USA to visit Karakalpakistan, so she could show them the levels of poverty people endure there. "They'd been to other poor countries, but they said that nowhere else had they seen such interminable poverty," she said.


Of course compassionate visitors can always leave, but the Karakalpaks and other peoples of the Priaral have nowhere to go. It is not their fault that the sea has dried up, and they don't want to find themselves reduced to statistics in an ecological disaster.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Project Director in Tashkent.


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