Poisoned Land Kills Uzbeks

ReutersTwo babies fighting to breathe in a hospital in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan region.
NUKUS, Uzbekistan -- Two babies, a few months old, lie fighting for life in a hospital in eastern Uzbekistan's vast and poverty-stricken Karakalpakstan region.

Acute respiratory infections make each breath a desperate struggle. Despite dedicated nursing, their distress is harrowing. They do not look as if they will enjoy long lives.

The babies are among thousands of victims of an agricultural policy, fashioned by the Soviet Union and pursued enthusiastically by independent Uzbekistan, which is creating a desert, destroying the Aral Sea, poisoning land, and cutting harvests.

And killing people.

Cotton is the main culprit. The valuable but thirsty crop needs long, hot summers. The southern states of the former Soviet Union, especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, have plenty of hot weather but precious little water.

No matter. Soviet planners built gigantic irrigation networks to divert water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the great rivers of Central Asia running from the Pamir mountains to the Aral Sea, into the cotton fields.

They poured thousands of tons of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals into the fields, polluting the water as it flowed back to the Aral Sea. Except nowadays it doesn't.

So much water has been taken out of the rivers that they no longer reach the sea, which is shrinking and dying.

Instead the water evaporates, leaving dry river beds and fields covered in a nasty chemical salt that blows across the region, poisoning ever more land as well as animals and people.

Air quality is atrocious, full of dust, chemicals and salt, and the quality of water keeps deteriorating.

Throw in a drought that has afflicted a huge swath of Central Asia for three years, and the result is poverty, famine, disease and death.

"The drought has a direct impact on diseases of the kidneys, limbs and respiratory infections. And there's a lot of anemia -- almost 85 percent of people here are anemic," says Shekhnazar Allaniyazov, chief doctor at the hospital where the babies are being cared for.

"Of course it's getting worse. There's not enough food."

The authorities in Karakalpakstan, which covers the eastern third of Uzbekistan but is home to just a million of its 24 million people, are well aware that there is a problem.

"The Aral Sea has been dying since 1961, and intensive farming of the Amu Darya basin is one of the main reasons," says Rashid Kusheikov, head of the department of water resources of Karakalpakstan's Agriculture and Water Ministry. "Of course, every year its area diminishes and the level of dangerous matter and salt keeps growing."

Atajan Khamraev, Karakalpakstan's deputy health minister, says one result is a rapid growth in cases of tuberculosis, despite six years of prophylactic measures. "This proves public health does not only depend on medicines but on external social and environmental factors," he says.

But even though the authorities recognize the catastrophe, their solutions seem surprising.

"We are considering a switch from water-hungry crops to crops that use water more economically," Kusheikov says.

But while this sensible-sounding approach has already started, close examination shows some strange anomalies.

While the area sown to cotton was cut to 80,000 hectares last year from 125,000 hectares in 2000, the rice area was cut from 60,000 hectares in 2000 to just 5,000 last year -- enough to provide seeds for the future, but not enough to eat.

So the Uzbek state, which persists in operating an almost totally state-run economy despite pledges to reform it, continues to fill its coffers by compulsory purchases of cotton from farmers who receive a fraction of its world market price. And locals in Karakalpakstan have less and less to eat.

So bad is the situation that the Red Cross is now giving out emergency food aid around Nukus, Karakalpakstan's bleak capital -- not because of war or emergency, but because sustained cotton growing and irrigation have rendered the land useless.

Indeed, to grow crops on this land at all now, fields must first be flooded and drained to clear the poison from the surface -- not once but four times, Red Cross officials say.

The resultant runoff flows back to the Amu Darya River but does not reach the sea. Instead as the water evaporates, yet more toxic sludge is left to dry, blow around the region, endanger more lives, and poison more land, which must be flooded and washed even more frequently the following year.

So food supply is falling and, increasingly, aid is keeping people alive.

On a recent visit to a Red Cross food distribution point 50 kilometers from Nukus, crowds of people had walked more than 10 kilometers from a collective farm that cannot feed them to collect huge sacks full of cooking oil, rice, flour and salt.

Most blamed the food shortage purely on the recent lack of rain, unaware of the wider reasons behind the crisis.

"If there was rain we could feed ourselves, but this year we need this support very much," said Zhupargul, 51, a mother of 11, at home as one of her sons returned laden with aid. "For two years now we've been living on tea and bread."

She receives a pension of 9,000 soms ($6) per month, and another 1,715 soms ($1.15) per month for each of her four children under 16. The family's hardship is self-evident as they talk in their primitive house.