From sea to puddle: the evolution of the Aral Sea and its impact on the health of Uzbekistan’s inhabitants
The Aral Sea was once the fourth biggest inner lake on the Earth. Its water was home to hundreds of different species and its surroundings were a basic source of life and economic wealth for Uzbekistan’s inhabitants.
Back in 1960, when Stalin held power in the Soviet Union, he decided to take away the water from two essential rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which flowed into the aforementioned endorheic lake in order to irrigate the USSR’s cotton plantations.
Nowadays, almost six decades after the measures were first taken, the inhabitants of both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, border countries of the Aral sea, still suffer under the effects of this largely devastating environmental disaster.
Specifically in Uzbekistan, the consequences that the desiccation of the Aral Sea has brought about for its inhabitants are unimaginable. Hundreds of vegetable and animal species disappeared and Uzbeks have, therefore, faced an inconceivable loss of economic resources, which mainly revolving around the fishing industry. Not only has the environment suffered like never before, but this has also had a major impact on Uzbekistan’s inhabitants, who have witnessed major blows to their health.
Life expectancy and mortality rate have decreased alarmingly over the last decades in Uzbekistan. The most common diseases are related to the respiratory and digestive systems. The progressive desiccation of the Aral Sea has caused an increase in dust particles as well as a notable growth in the sea’s process of salinization. Breathing and digestion of these particles, together with the disappearance of marine species, the main food source for Uzbeks, has intensified the spread of diseases like cirrhosis or tuberculosis.
In addition, water quality plays a very important role in the population’s health. Water sources contaminated with bacteria are the leading cause of illnesses related to the digestive system, as well as skin and eye irritation. During the 1990s, the average amount of chemical fertilizers and insecticides used in Central Asia was around 20 to 25 kilograms per hectare. As a result, the water supply has been considerably polluted ever since.
In fact, concentrations of carbolic acid and petroleum substances identified in the Amu Darya river are above safe amounts. High concentrations of salt and heavy metals have also been found. These concentrations have particularly affected the indigenous population of the country, as well as their descendants. Among the main effects of these chemicals, are the alterations in the development and growth of the foetus, skin damage and changes in the normal functioning of the liver. Surprisingly, traces of organochlorine (the main component of DDT) and furan, have also been identified in samples of breast milk and food products. The latter is due to bioaccumulation of these toxic substances in the food chain.
Given these conditions, many organizations and institutions have been established and are working hard to change the situation both within the Aral Sea and the population affected by its desiccation. For example, the International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS) worked on a project called Program of Specific Actions for Improving the Ecological and Social Situation in the Aral Sea Basin from 2003-2010 with the objective of bettering the health of Uzbekistan’s inhabitants and the natural surroundings of the Aral Sea, as well as fighting against its desiccation.However, there is still a long way to go in order to change what, so far, seems to be a terrifying future for the Aral Sea and all those affected by its disappearing waters. This example is just another one of hundreds that show how an environmental disaster can have a major impact for many generations to come. These effects are lasting, given that the most serious of the negative impacts can only be felt now, more than 50 years later.