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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Disastrous Thirst

NUKUS, UZBEKISTAN -- Standing on the roof of the 10-story Uzbek Academy of Sciences building, Yusup Kamalov has watched, more times than he would like to remember, the ground-hugging, gray clouds churn across the salt-streaked desert beyond the city's outskirts. Sometimes the chubby-cheeked wind engineer has to run back indoors before the dust storm barrels into Nukus, the regional capital of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan.

The grit can choke anyone unlucky enough to be caught outdoors. It may also be toxic as it's laced with sulfates, phosphates and chlorinated hydrocarbons whipped up from the former seabed of the Aral Sea and the region's parched cotton fields. The chemicals are reminders of decades of flawed Soviet irrigation schemes that shriveled the sea and poisoned the land. It is probably no coincidence, experts say, that rates of respiratory illnesses, kidney disease and anemia in Karakalpakstan are among the highest in the world. "The level of health and the quality of life are profoundly poor, and deteriorating," says Ian Small, country manager for the nonprofit organization M?decins Sans Fronti?res, which has an office in Nukus. "It is a tragic humanitarian disaster."

Ignored by Soviet planners for decades, the 35 million people living in the Aral Sea basin are now the target of a $600 million campaign, spearheaded by the World Bank and the United Nations, to improve the region's drinking water, revamp its agricultural practices and sustain its biodiversity. The goal is not to turn back the clock and restore the Aral to its former grandeur; local officials know that won't happen: "We will be witnesses to the disappearance of the Aral Sea," Karakalpak Health Minister Damir Babanazarov says. Rather, the massive cash infusion is meant to assuage the disaster's social ills and to avert a war over water among the Central Asian nations that depend on the two great rivers that feed the Aral.

The Aral Sea region's current plight traces its roots to the early days of the Soviet Union, when Communist authorities hatched a plan to grow all the cotton the country would need by irrigating the vast plains in Central Asia. They chose this region, Kamalov says, "because it was clear that the people around the Aral Sea, so far from Moscow, would not be able to struggle against the project." The Soviet Union revved up wide-scale cotton production in the mid-1920s, then 30 years later carved hundreds of kilometers of canals from the Aral's two tributaries - the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya - into the surrounding desert to nourish new cotton fields. The Soviet Union soon joined the United States and China as the world's leading cotton exporters.

The plan started to unravel in the early 1960s, however, with the first signs that the Aral Sea was shrinking. Once the world's fourth largest lake, slightly bigger than Lake Huron, the Aral has lost 80 percent of its volume over the last 40 years, exposing to desiccation 3.6 million hectares of seabed. Evaporation and agricultural runoff have left the Aral saltier than the ocean, an environment that has killed off 42 of 46 fish species. (All 24 of the Aral's native species have long since perished.) The collapse of the Aral's fisheries and poor crop yields in the desiccated land have displaced as many as 100,000 people, says Small, leaving Karakalpakstan, for instance, the poorest district in Uzbekistan.

Not even "white gold," as Soviet officials called Central Asia's cotton, can bail out the troubled region. A rising water table - swelled by wasteful irrigation schemes and a system in which farmers drew water freely, whether they used it or squandered it - has brought hundreds of tons of salt per hectare up into the cotton fields, Kamalov says. Cotton yields continue to plummet as fields are blighted by salt. Uzbekistan now produces about 2 tons per hectare, less than a third of Israel, a country with a similarly arid climate, says Saparbai Kabulov, a biologist at the Academy of Science's Institute of Bioecology.

Uzbek scientists have developed salt-resistant cultivars that require 50 percent less water, but farmers resist planting them because they believe the government would then restrict their current unfettered access to water. "People have said, 'If we will introduce this new cotton, the authorities will not give us water,'" says Kalbai Myrzambetov of the Institute of Bioecology. The rising water table has also tainted drinking water supplies. "We have not a single hectare in which the water is fresh," Kamalov says. After rainstorms in springtime, he adds, "that's when the water is the worst. We can't drink tea with milk. It tastes bad."

After first acknowledging the ecological disaster during glasnost in the mid-1980s, the Soviet government drafted grand plans for saving the imperiled Aral, including one to divert water southward from Siberian rivers. Those plans were never realized, and after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the diminishing Aral Sea became an environmental disaster zone for the five nearby new countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Since then, the United Nations, the World Bank and other organizations have held dozens of workshops and conferences to map out strategies for distributing water more efficiently from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, such as how to clamp down on wasteful irrigation to allow more water to reach the Aral. Each scheme faces the challenge of balancing the different interests of human health, prosperity and the wildlife and environment. And like all water politics, it is a high-tension affair trying to ensure equitable water distribution between, say, upstream nations like the mountainous Kyrgyzstan, which taps the Syr Darya for hydroelectric energy, and thirsty downstream users like Uzbekistan. "The notion of a war of water in Central Asia does sometimes raise its head," says Daene McKinney of the University of Texas's Center for Research in Water Resources in Austin, but adds that so far, local governments "seem to be dead against allowing this to happen."

In theory, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers could replenish the sea, Kamalov says. But experts say that restoring the Aral to about twice its current size - such that it could sustain a diverse aquatic ecosystem - would require stopping all irrigation from the two Daryas for the next half century. "Politically," says Kamalov, "the water is just not available."

The international community is now rallying around a series of initiatives approved last year in which the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility and several other organizations plan to spend $600 million through 2002 to address a panoply of Aral problems. A large chunk of the money is for engineering projects to purify drinking water and upgrade irrigation and drainage systems throughout the Syr Darya-Amu Darya basin. The stakes are high: According to a 1997 World Bank report, if salt continues to leach into the fields and the water supply, much of the land "will be unfit for irrigated agriculture within a few decades," and the water will be undrinkable. "The economic, environmental and social impacts would be incalculable," the report states.

The goal of these initiatives is to mitigate the consequences of a breakup of the Aral Sea. At the present rate of shrinkage, Kamalov predicts, "by 2012 the Aral will break up into three small lakes and disappear as an ecosystem." Two of the lakes will lie mostly in Uzbekistan and likely will continue to shrink. Kazakhstan officials, meanwhile, hope to preserve the northern more brackish lake by damming it off from the main water body to the south and allowing the Syr Darya to gradually refill it. Kazakhstan intends to restock the north Aral Sea with fish. (See box.)

Another ambitious project now gearing up seeks to save an important wetland in the 28,000-square-kilometer Amu Darya delta, half of which has already withered. Lake Sudoche and the surrounding marshlands northwest of Nukus are home to several endangered species, including the Bukhara deer, the Dalmatian pelican, the Siberian crane and the bastard sturgeon. The $3.9 million restoration project will include the construction of a series of earthen dams between the dry Aral Sea bed and Lake Sudoche, which is becoming saltier and more oxygen-poor every year. The dams would collect fresh rainwater - as much as 600 million cubic meters during the fall and winter - and allow it to flush the surrounding wetlands.

Bank project managers acknowledge that the first big flush could create unintended ecological perturbations, such as water temperature changes, that may harm wildlife. "The level of risk is unknown," states a Global Environment Facility report released last year. It also points out, however, "that if nothing is done, Sudoche would become even more saline, the oxygen content of the water would continue to drop, and the wetlands would lose much of [their] biodiversity and fish life."

GEF managers say that saving Lake Sudoche could stimulate the local economy through increased fishing and hunting. Any economic boost would be welcome in Karakalpakstan, still reeling from the grave blow to its fisheries and falling cotton production. One of the grimmest spots in the region is Muynak, the site of a former cannery. Today, rusting hulks of fishing boats litter the sand on the town's northern fringe, the Aral's shores 70 kilometers to the north and receding. In the early 1980s, "we could still take a bus a few kilometers from Muynak to go swimming, and watch the blue sea gulls," recalls Valeria Slabolitskaya, an administrative assistant at M?decins Sans Fronti?res. Today, scores of unemployed people laze around on the dusty streets. Just outside town, Small says, "you can drive for kilometers and see nothing but thick white salt.It looks like snow."

"We're establishing a beachhead here," says M?decins Sans Fronti?res epidemiologist Joost van der Meer. In one project, MSF staff are collaborating with Muynak doctors to improve drug therapies at a local tuberculosis clinic and to build a new dispensary. But Karakalpakstan has other dire health problems - rampant anemia, respiratory infections and high infant mortality rates, to name a few. Part of Van der Meer's job is to try to ascertain the causes of these problems. "I'd bet on the toxic dust storms," he says. In Nukus, the frequency of major dust storms has increased from about one storm every five years in the 1950s to about five a year, Kamalov says. Toxic dust storms, says Van der Meer, "are the one thing you can't find anywhere else" in the world.

Van der Meer acknowledges that it will take a lot of outside help to get to the bottom of the region's health woes. "We have no capacity to do this ourselves," both in manpower and lab facilities, he says. He hopes to become a matchmaker of sorts, hooking up Western and Uzbek scientists for projects on everything from tracking disease rates to probing the dust's toxic constituents.

The hope is that such new international efforts will help the people in the Aral Sea basin who are struggling to survive. "We might not be able to save the Aral Sea," says Babanazarov, the Karakalpak health minister. "But we may be able to save the people living around it."

Richard Stone is a deputy news editor at Science Magazine.