High and dry
By Carolyn Oxlee
“ecological illiteracy of a whole generation”
says scientist Kabulov Saparbey, has shrunk the Aral Sea to
half its size and one-quarter of its volume since the 1960s.
Three million hectares of desert seabed now lie where once
there was water. The International Federation and the National
Societies in the region try to put the human cost of this
environmental catastrophe on the international agenda.
A silver-coloured statue of a fisherman proudly holding
a sturgeon bears testament to Muynak’s past. Its fish
factory used to produce caviar for the Soviet government.
Those were the days when Muynak was a lively fishing town
on the southern coast of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. But
the water is long gone – as far as the eye can see
is sandy desert and green scrub. Younger generations of
people have never even seen the sea.
A man-made disaster
The Aral Sea, remote and now inaccessible, is fed by the
Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, but depends on all five
central Asian countries to continually replenish its water
supply: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which surround the sea,
Turkmenistan, which shares the Amu Darya river with Uzbekistan
for irrigation, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, home to the
mountains where the rivers that feed the sea have their
During Soviet rule, these rivers were bled dry by massive
irrigation networks, mainly needed for cotton production.
At the same time, fertilizers and pesticides, used to force
up crops from increasingly saline soil, fed into the rivers
of the Aral Sea heavily polluting the drinking water of
It was a deliberate action. With their focus on producing
enough cotton to feed a growing textile industry, Soviet
planners knew their strategy would ultimately dry up the
sea. Today, the Aral Sea is a harsh lesson in what happens
when you interfere with Mother Nature. The summers are now
hotter, the winters colder. Plants and trees have disappeared.
Fish can no longer survive in what is left of the sea because
it has become too saline. Salty dust storms whipped up from
the sea-bed blow for hundreds of kilometres.
“It’s only the beginning of the catastrophe,”
says Kabulov Saparbey, head of plants and ecology at the
Academy of Science in Nukus, Uzbekistan. “The sea
could disappear completely in the next 10 to 12 years because
of evaporation if we do not increase the water flow. This
would create a new desert and bring a climate with greater
extremes of temperature.”
The human consequences
“The suffering of the people in the region is widespread
but complex. Complex because the ill health,
deformities in newborn children, high rates of cancer and
a bewildering array of health problems caused by toxic water
bearing almost every known form of pollution, is so extensive,”
explains Federation head of regional delegation Bob McKerrow.
“In addition chest, eye, ear and skin infections are
caused by the huge salt and dust clouds.”
The human toll is most pronounced among pregnant women
and newborn babies. High levels of anaemia among women cause
miscarriages and sick babies, born underweight or with deformities.
In the maternity ward of Kazalins Hospital in the Kazakh
Aral Sea zone, Aygul Akpanova, 23, has just given birth
to a daughter whose feet bend inwards. “I felt tired
and dizzy throughout my pregnancy,” she says. A high
level of poverty and malnutrition in the region exacerbates
the health problems. Many people are surviving on bread,
vegetables and tea. Anaemia is caused by a poor diet. Tuberculosis
– a disease that thrives in poor social conditions
– is higher in the Aral Sea zone than elsewhere in
the region. At the tuberculosis centre in Kungrad, south
of Muynak, several adults admitted this year weighed less
than 30 kg.
In Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, the government
runs a programme for sick children from the Aral Sea zone.
Children come to Almaty children’s hospital for one
month of medical treatment, clean water and nutritious food.
Almost all of them suffer from gastro-intestinal and respiratory
diseases. The Kazak Red Crescent and Red Cross (KRCRC) supplies
the hospital with donations of blankets, bedlinen, hygiene
kits and medical equipment.
Those born after the 1970s have never known clean drinking
water, dependent on the now salty and polluted waters of
the Aral Sea rivers. In Aralsk, a former port on the Kazak
coast, now more than 50 km from the sea, clean drinking
water is trucked in, but not regularly, and the transport
has to be paid for by the villagers.
But the sea alone is not to blame for many of the problems
facing the inhabitants of the Aral Sea region. The economic
and financial lifeline of all five central Asian countries
was severed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving
inhabitants with inadequate industry, unemployment and unpaid
salaries. Even those who have a job today are not all being
“We live like dogs,” says Seretbai Tulegenov
“I haven’t been paid for seven months. I have
seven children, only one of my sons has found a job. There’s
no work here,” he says.
“It’s not our business to solve the ecological
problems. We should help people to obtain a good standard
of living. Our priorities are to improve health care, food
and nutrition,” says Oktamhon Vakhidova, chairperson
of the Uzbek Red Crescent. But donors seem to shrug their
shoulders at the mention of the Aral Sea disaster –
perhaps because it is so difficult to reach, or that so many
other crises demand their attention and money.
“We are fighting to get donors’ interest in the
problems of this region, but so far with limited success,”
says Bob McKerrow. Despite a poor response to an appeal for
funds in 1998, the Federation is working towards establishing
food projects for children in institutions and pregnant women,
and also to revitalize visiting-nurses programmes that assist
the elderly and people with disabilities.
Going against the tide, the American Red Cross responded
to the call for help and sent an evaluation team to the Aral
Sea. It hopes to start a nutritional programme at the end
of this year, but this is dependent on the application for
support made to the US government.
The Red Cross Red Crescent capacity to help people so far
has been limited because its structures are weak, and Societies
are in embryo stages of development since the collapse of
the Soviet Union.
The KRCRC local committee is recruiting volunteers to assist
elderly and disabled people and multi-children families with
shopping and cleaning. It plans to teach first aid to 50 social
welfare officers. In Uzbekistan, Red Crescent visiting nurses
help more than 500 elderly and disabled people. “We’ve
just conducted a vulnerability survey of 600 families which
found that people lack clothes and shoes, and don’t
have enough food or clean water. We’d like to help with
all this, but we don’t have any money,” says regional
chairwoman Abadan Bazarbaeva. With few local industries and
widespread unemployment, local fund-raising is difficult.
Even the United Nations Development Programme has been disappointed
by lack of donor interest in its programme to coordinate non-governmental
organizations activities to rehabilitate the economic, social
and health needs of the people.
hope and despair
“We need the sea back,” is a frequent plea. Many
of the people of Muynak and Aralsk can only look back, and
see no other future. Over the years, scientists and politicans
have had wild plans to refill the sea, by blowing up the mountains
where the water originates, diverting water from rivers in
Siberia or digging a channel from the Caspian Sea, more than
400 km to the west.
However, there is some hope for the people of Aralsk. A dam
built in 1992 has separated a small sea from the main body
of water. The water level is rising in this small sea and
it is supporting fish. A Danish organization is working with
local fisherman to train them in breeding and marketing flounder,
a flat fish, and the only one that can survive in the now
There is optimism in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that
exploration for oil and gas reserves may result in new industries.
A more immediate alternative is a developing cattle business.
Local authorities in the Kazak Aral Sea zone are trying to
stimulate small- and medium-sized businesses, such as carpet
industries and soft drinks factories.
Ultimately, the future of the region depends on the people,
their ability to adapt to new industries and the will and
funds of governments to improve water supplies and nutrition.
“God cannot reverse what God has not done. This sea
dried up because of man, so only man can put it right,”
says Kabulov Saparbey.
Carolyn Oxlee is an editorial officer in the Federation’s
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