Guldasbay Jumamuratov, cotton farmer
Near Moynak, Guldasbay Jumamuratov
and his family gather cotton. Once this was a season of
great promise. Today sources of water are drying up — and
what's available is too salty and tainted with chemicals.
Guldasbay has worked his ancestral farm all his life. When
he was the age of his grandchildren this small farm would
yield four tons of cotton. Now they are lucky to gather
half that amount.
The family has no other choice than to struggle on or join
the hundreds of thousands who have moved to the shantytowns
that surround the Aral Sea.
POINTS OF VIEW:
Anthony Kolb, Doctors Without Borders
Moynak, the city that's been most affected
by the Aral Sea crisis has never been an easy place to live.
The attachment to the land is very strong. This is their
homeland; the Karakalpak people have been here. This is their
identity. For them to try to move now, to find another place,
is not easy.
It’s certainly well known that
tuberculosis is a disease of the poor. TB bacilli is present
in up to a third of the world population. But people don’t
get sick from TB all over the world. It’s
places where people are challenged by their environment or by their social
Devra Davis, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center
Uzbekistan faces a tragedy of enormous proportion.
The mothers and fathers in Uzbekistan, themselves, have bodies that
have heavy levels of certain metals and pollutants that we understand
have an affect on their capacity to become parents, as well as influencing
the health of the children they may produce.
Dr. Oral Ataniyazova, Director of the Center for Human Reproduction and
The Aral Sea crisis is not only environmental crisis. This is a big,
human crisis, because, we have now third generation of people who are
living in such polluted area. I think the Aral Sea crisis is one of the
dramatic examples of what could be happen if the environment and irrigation
system is mismanaged.
The early morning hours in the ancient city of Samarkand, in the
Central-Asian national of Uzbekistan, could be a scene out of Marco
Polo's journal. It seems like a moment suspended in time — a
reflection of the ethnic sweep of Central Asian history and the
conquests of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
The residents today are the descendants of nomads who lived twenty-five
hundred years ago when Samarkand was at the crossroads of the greatest
trade route in history — the legendary Silk Road. Desert
caravans connecting China and Rome brought with them not only an
exchange of goods but also new ideas, new cultures and new religions.
Though the Silk Road traders and marauders are long gone, their
spiritual and cultural legacies remain. The heart and soul of Samarkand
is a medieval complex — a center of religious scholarship.
Restored to its original splendor it's an architectural wonder
of the Islamic world. And beyond these walls is a country and a
people surrounded by ancient history — a people caught between
their Silk Road heritage and the pressures of the 21st century.
How could the world's fourth largest inland
body of water — the Aral Sea — become the site of what the United Nations
calls man's greatest ecological disaster?
But this region has another history as well. In a remote corner
of Uzbekistan, the nearest body of water is almost 90 miles away.
Yet, in this seemingly uninhabited wilderness, there exists an
extraordinary sight — a vast graveyard of boats in the middle
of the desert. These are the abandoned skeletons of a once proud
and prosperous fishing fleet.
Abandoned Soviet boat on the
Amu Darya River just outside of Nukus.
Today, the ruins are a reminder that forty years ago these sand
dunes were covered by an ocean of fresh water. How could this happen?
How could the world's fourth largest inland body of water — the
Aral Sea — become the site of what the United Nations calls
man's greatest ecological disaster?
Tashkent is Uzbekistan's capital. Home to nearly 3 million people — this
is Central Asia’s most modern city. It too was once at the
crossroads of the ancient trade routes. But unlike Samarkand, much
of its history has been paved over. Tashkent's wide avenues are
a gift from the country's most recent conqueror — the Soviet
Union. Though the Soviets have been gone since 1991, they left
behind yet another legacy — a legacy based on their demand
that Uzbekistan become a major producer of cotton.
Karakalpak woman picking
cotton near Shimbay.
In the early 1960s, engineers from the Soviet Union devised an
ambitious program. They decided to reshape the desert — to
turn sand into cotton — to help save the Soviet's failing
economy. Tens of thousands of workers built a vast network of irrigation
canals covering one hundred thousand square miles. Water laced
with fertilizers and pesticides was pumped onto the land. Within
a decade, Uzbekistan became the world's second-largest producer
of cotton. But that was when the country's largest river — the
Amu Darya — was an untapped source of water. It was a river
so wide it took Alexander the Great's army five days to cross it.
Woman gathering water.
As an expanding cotton industry consumed almost all the water
flowing into the Aral Sea — it began to shrink. In just over
three decades an ancient and thriving ecosystem was half its original
size. Today, upstream cotton farms have sucked the lower Amu Darya
dry. Huge pumps that once diverted water for irrigation are idle.
Dried-out canals scar the landscape. Deprived of water, river traffic
is non-existent — abandoned cargo boats litter the shoreline — mute
testimony to a misguided agricultural policy. And a river — once
wider than the Mississippi — never reaches its natural destination
in the Aral Sea.
Before the collapse of the Aral Sea a fleet of soviet trawlers
worked these rich waters. Fishermen from all over Central Asia
joined them. Each year they brought in over 50,000 tons of fish.
Every day hundreds of boats pulled into Moynak, Uzbekistan's largest
port, with their holds filled with over 20 different species of
fish. Conveyor belts carried their cargo directly into dockside
processing plants. At its peak the canneries produced over 12 million
tins of fish a year — and employed three thousand people.
Moynak's population grew to over 40,000.
But in the end, they lost everything. For the people of Uzbekistan,
the death of the Aral Sea has become a never ending nightmare.
Today, Moynak is a virtual ghost town — now ninety miles
from the receding shores of a barren, lifeless sea. For those that
stayed behind there is very little to do. They are part of the
Karakalpak population, a proud people with their own ethnic traditions,
language and culture. But with the destruction of the ecosystem,
their very existence is under attack.
Karakalpak settlements have little infrastructure — no
running water, sanitation or healthcare facilities. Of the three
million people living near the Aral Sea, over 40 percent are unemployed.
Everyone is an environmental refugee — fleeing from the destruction
of an inland ocean. All they found were poverty and disease.
Villages are covered with lethal dust and surface water and communal
wells are contaminated. The most seriously affected are women and
The region has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis
in the world. Tuberculosis is a disease that preys upon the
weak and malnourished — it doesn't discriminate between
age or sex. In recent years, drug resistant strains of TB
have developed and they are difficult to treat effectively.
For the former fishermen, canners, and cotton farmers of
Moynak, the prognosis is not very hopeful. However, tuberculosis
is not the only health problem spawned by the collapse of
the Aral Sea.
Woman with Tuberculosis.
Every year windstorms sweep across the exposed seabed, picking
up millions of tons of toxic salt and the residue of agricultural
chemicals — including DDT. This legacy of the cotton
industry has left behind the planet's highest concentration
of air-borne pollutants. Villages are covered with lethal dust
and surface water and communal wells are contaminated. The
most seriously affected are women and young children.
Twenty-five years of contaminated water and air are taking
a toll. Ninety per cent of pregnant women suffer from anemia.
Not unlike the Inuit of the arctic, their breast milk contains
high levels of agricultural chemicals. The effect on infants
is devastating. Five percent of newborns have birth defects — ten
percent will die before their first birthday.
Not very far from Moynak are the ruins of a Silk Road city.
A nearby cemetery dates back to the time of Genghis Khan. This
particular mausoleum is considered by the Karakalpak people
to be a holy shrine. Along these medieval walls are groups
of seven stones piled on top of each other. Placed there
by an occasional and hopeful visitor — it is said that
when each stone falls, a wish is granted. Here, in this remote
corner of Central Asia, hope is in short supply.