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

Uzbekistan: Crop Crisis in Karakalpakstan

The government's quest for quotas is draining the fertility from soil already affected by the Aral Sea disaster.
By Olga Borisova

Uzbekistan's autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan is facing an agricultural crisis caused by the authorities' practise of planting large amounts of crops on unsuitable stretches of land.


Experts fear that government planners are refusing to take the region's ecological crisis, caused by the drying up of the Aral Sea, into account in their eagerness to fulfil the largest quotas possible.


Authorities demand that as much rice and cotton as possible are planted on the autonomous republic's land, which is fast losing its fertility due to increasingly saline irrigation water from the evaporating sea.


Erejep Kurbanbaev, director of the Karakalpak branch of the Central Asian Scientific Research Institute for Irrigation, warns that very little can be done to save this year's harvest. "Even if there is water all the time, the agriculture plans will only be fulfilled by at most 60 per cent. Not even the most modern system of irrigation can make this land fertile," he told IWPR.


Karakalpakstan needs to be developed in a completely opposite way than is currently practised, he argued. The acreage of cotton and rice has to be reduced, and alternative industries such as fish farming could be practised in the republic's artificial and natural ponds.


"If this situation continues for another 10-15 years, agriculture in Karakalpakstan will simply perish," warned Kurbanbaev.


But Uzbek agriculture and water resources ministry official Faizulla Salokhitdinov defended the government's policy in Karakalpakstan, saying the increase in rice production was "the right decision".


He also pointed out that next year the authorities aim to increase the acreage of the rice fields by three times the current amount. "Karakalpakstan was traditionally a rice producer and it should stay like that," said Salokhitdinov.


Rasuljon Kholmatjonov, from the ministry's department of cotton production, told IWPR, "The policy of our government is to support the agricultural sector. We know very well about water supply and harvest targets and if we decide that cotton should be planted, then that's what has to be done."


But another official, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed to IWPR that ministry specialists are aware of the problems with Karakalpakstan's soil and water resources - and revealed that a number of proposals to change the cotton-growing policy to take these issues into account have been sent to the government.


Signs that the situation was reaching crisis point came this autumn, when, for the first time in recent years, local students were not recruited to help gather the cotton harvest.


The region's collective farmers refused the young people's help, saying not only could they easily gather such a miserable yield themselves, the students' wages would have cost far more than the income from the harvest.


"The economy of the republic has sunk to its lowest point, but agriculture in particular has suffered," Ubbiniyaz Ashirbekov, director of the Nukus branch of the International Foundation to Save the Aral Sea, and the former head of the Jokarga Kenes (Supreme Council) of Karakalpakstan told IWPR.


The autonomous republic's minister for external economic ties, Sultan Atabaev, believes that Karakalpakstan needs to move from agrarian production toward industry, to take advantage of the region's many mineral and raw material resources, such as gas, oil, marble, limestone, semiprecious stones and gold.


Atabaev said that it would only be possible to establish mining and industrial processing of natural resources in Karakalpakstan with the help of investment capital, but foreign investors were scared off by currency problems and the republic's very low standard of living and service.


The autonomous republic relies on its agriculture, but each year the land yields a smaller and smaller harvest. Last year, when the region was hit by a severe drought, more than 100,000 tons of cotton was gathered by the middle of November. Little over 70,000 tons had been collected by the same time this year.


The Uzbek government expects 186,000 tons of cotton to be grown this year, but as the cotton-picking season is almost at an end, there appears to be no way to meet the quota.


Cotton-growing is the most important industry in agrarian Uzbekistan, and its export gives the republic its main source of foreign currency. This is why Tashkent places pressure on Karakalpakstan - which comprises one third of its territory - to exploit the land and expand the plantations.


While the republic was once renowned for its rice harvests, the plantations are now a pitiful sight. The 2001 yield did not even equal one per cent of the harvest seven years ago, thanks to severe droughts three years in succession.


There has been more than enough water to go round this year, and yet around 2,500 hectares of rice has been wiped out in three northern Karakalpak regions. Analysts blame this on the authorities, who insisted on sowing rice in unsuitable areas to boost the quota expected by Tashkent.


As a result, the over-harvested fields are only yielding as little as a third of the amount gathered in an equivalent amount of Russian land.


Olga Borisova is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.