Foreign Policy Blogs

The Aral Sea Disaster, part 3: Living the climate change prophecy

Dust Storm, Aral SeaUntil writing these posts, I visualized desertification as an encroaching edge.  Climate research shows, though, that desertification works on a pocket approach: a little desert here, and a little desert there, like brush fires, gradually grow into one very large swathe of hostile landmass.  This pocket-to-pocket desertification is occurring in the Gobi Deserts of Mongolia and Tibet and Xinjiang‚ and it is occurring in the Aral Sea Basin.  It increases poverty, as when Mongolian or Uzbekistani herdsmen can no longer support themselves through livestock cultivation. 

In the Aral Sea region, with so many contaminants on the dry lakebed, desertification has increased the severity of poverty-related disease, and brought new illnesses to an already weakened populace. And just as noted by those who study human security, those who are least able to confront climate change are now living under the worst-case scenarios noted by climate change advocates.

The regions most affected by Aral Sea dessication include the Dashoguz region of Turkmenistan, the Kyzyl-Orda region of Kazakhstan, and most of all, the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan.  But dust storms can blow these poisonous salts up to 700 miles away.

Karakalpakstan–the Downstream Oblast
Karakalpakstan HOT ZONEUzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Autonomous District is a sparsely-populated, isolated pocket of an isolationist state.  It has always been the most downstream oblast; Karakalpakstan's autonomous status means its political clout is little; poverty contributes to their political voicelessness. 

As described in part one of this series, Aral Sea degradation has decimated commerce and killed livestock and fish-stocks.  Wetlands-based industries, such as cane-gathering or muskrat breeding, are no longer possible.  Feedstock growth is lessened; land can sustain less livestock.  Nutritionally, this means that nearby communities can no longer access sources of protein.   

Medical research differentiates between poverty disease and environmental disease, and so does the UNEP/GRID-Arendal report:

The primary victims of the crises were the most vulnerable layers of population, namely children, women, ill-paid inhabitants of cities and rural areas. The region has the highest child mortality rate in the former USSR (75 children per 1000 newly born), high level of maternity death: about 120 women per 10,000 births. Diseases such as TB, infections and parasites, typhus, hepatit[is, and] paratyphoid always accompany poverty.

The aerosolized pesticide and fertilizer that blows in the wind (fancifully called Aeolian dust by Medical Researchers) is breathed by inhabitants.  It also settles in wells and waterways, meaning that these poisons are ingested with drinking water and cooked into food. 

In the epicentre of ecological disaster, anemia, thyroid gland dysfunction, kidney and liver diseases are widespread. Blood, oncological diseases, asthma and heart diseases are progressing. Medical research proves that the incidence and growth of these diseases are directly dependent on ecological disaster.

Nukus, Capital of KarakalpakstanIn reality, though, the differences between poverty-based disease and environmental disease in the Aral Sea basin are academic, or based upon funding categories and politics.  The basin's inhabitants are poor because of environmental degradation; one cannot separate the Aeolian salts from the dirt in the wind, nor the close relationship of tubercular disease from throat cancer in this region, nor the added vulnerability that chemically-induced anaemia adds to rates of maternal death.

Some Karapalkstan stats
Pregnant Woman in Karakalpakstan97% of Karakalpakstan's women are anemic‚ five times more than in 1987.  Manganese and zinc from pesticide ingestion affects human iron uptake.  (FAO, 1997).  The decrease in women's health affects infant mortality and maternal death rates.  Aral Sea basin infant mortality increases are 70-100 per 1000 live births, but in Karakalpakstan they are over 100 per 1,000 live births; three to four times higher thanthat of the rest of the former Soviet Union.  Low birth weight, growth retardation, delayed puberty, and mental retardation are substantially present.  —  (Whish-Wilson, 2002)

The DNA of Karakalpakstani residents is 3.5 times higher in genetic damage than that of people in the United States. This leads to cancer, a lack of general healing from injury, and birth defects.  As in all genetic material, damage can also be passed on to succeeding generations.  (Blua, 2004; BBC, 2004).  Liver cancer rates increased 200% between 1981 and 1987.  Throat cancer rates rose 25%.  — (FAO, 1997).

Tuberculosis rates have risen 70% in the last decade; 30% of these cases are multi-drug resistant strains of TB. (IRIN, 2006).

The exhaustion of Karakalpakstan is somehow mirrored by the world at large when it comes to the Aral Sea Crisis:

There is a tendency in informal parlance to describe the disaster in the past tense, yet the process that has dessicated the sea continues taking its toll on the health of the region.  While many places in the world have shown a positive increase in the quality of life, in the Aral Sea Region it continues to fall[emphases added].

But it's not over.  The Aral Sea Crisis continues to sicken and kill in Karakalpakstan, with ramifications for all Central Asia, for Asia as a whole‚ and it shows us all the human costs of climate change.

The Aral Sea's degradation will continue to pull down the economy and social services of Central Asian states if not addressed.  Tomorrow: (last post in the series) addresses the Post-Soviet Aral Sea.  There are some solutions that can make the Aral  Sea something more than the shame of the past or the harbinger of the future.  Instead, the Aral Sea can become a symbol of human ability  to remedy previous environmental destruction.

Again, Phillip Micklin (2000)–72 pages of absolute expertise, on Worth Reading page–Central Asia General
All indented quotes from UNEP-GRIDA-Arendal Aral Sea page
Bill Hewitt on world economic loss due to climate change

Photos: NASA,, International Red Crescent/Red Cross
Map:  University of Michigan