Land and Resources, Environmental Issues
Aral Sea disaster, Syr Darya, Amu Darya, habitable land, Growing cotton
The evaporation of the Aral Sea is one of the worst ecological disasters in the world. The Aral has shrunk so much that it now holds only about one-fifth the volume of water it held in 1960. The shrinkage is due to irrigation withdrawals from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, a practice that began on a massive scale in the early 1960s as part of the Soviet Union’s ill-conceived drive to increase cotton yields in Central Asia. Growing cotton in the naturally arid and saline soil in Central Asia requires excessive irrigation—cotton is a highly water-dependent crop. More than half of the Aral Sea basin is now a dry, salt-encrusted wasteland. The region’s ecosystem was severely degraded as the lake rapidly evaporated and the water flow became scant and intermittent in the two river deltas. Wildlife habitat has been destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and many animal and plant species have become extinct in the area. Wind storms pick up massive amounts of salt and sand from the exposed lake bed and deposit them elsewhere in the vicinity, mainly along the Aral shores, but sometimes as far as 400 km (250 mi) away. This has contributed to desertification, a process that transforms previously arable or habitable land into desert. The salt-laden dust storms, which also contain chemicals such as pesticides, have adversely affected human health: The toxic dust has been linked to respiratory illnesses and certain types of cancer. Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states have created a fund to address the Aral Sea disaster, with the goal of stabilizing the situation.
Industrial wastes and the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture have contributed to the severe pollution of Uzbekistan’s rivers and lakes. Contaminated drinking water is considered responsible for many human health disorders. Agricultural chemicals, including DDT, also have contaminated the soil in crop-growing areas. In 1992 the government established the State Committee for Environmental Protection. However, no major environmental initiatives are yet under way.
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