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  Guldasbay Jumamuratov


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.


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 conditions.

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

Dr. Oral Ataniyazova, Director of the Center for Human Reproduction and Family Planning.

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. Amu Darya is one of the main rivers that used to feed into the Aral Sea.

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.

Gulshad Jumamuratov picking 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.

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 young children.

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 TB.

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.



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