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A word on Aral

O. Abdirakhmanov

I live in the centre of the Aral region's environmental catastrophe. My people -the people of Karakalpakstan - have no other Motherland than the Aral region; 1.3 million people now live in the Karakalpak Republic. More than 10 million people now live in the ecological disaster zone of the Aral Sea region, as was pointed out in a summary document of a meeting of presidents of Central Asian republics on 3 March 1995. The Aral today is not just a local disaster.

Residents of the Aral region welcome the words of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who constantly draw attention to this global problem. As a result of their initiative, the Aral problem has become an integral part of the state politics of the five newly independent states.

The scope of the Aral disaster can be illustrated with the following statistics:

• of the initial surface area of the Aral Sea itself - 66,458 km2 slightly more than half remained in the early 1990s;

• of the former volume of water -1,022 km3 - only about one-third remained;

• the salt content of the water increased from 10 ppm to 31 ppm;

• the temperature change during the summer months has increased by 2 degrees;

• each hectare of land in the Aral disaster region has 500-700 kg of salt dust that has fallen on it as a result of more frequent and severe dust storms on the newly exposed Aral seabed.

(These data were provided by the Karakalpak Department of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences.)

At present over 90 per cent of Karakalpak women of child-bearing age suffer from anaemia and/or low blood pressure. The average infant mortality rate in January and February 1995 was 46 per 1,000 infants under the age of one year. Average life expectancy has been constantly falling.

The drying out of the Aral Sea has taken place in the course of only one human generation, i.e. during a 25-year period, and that cannot but be reflected in both the physical and the spiritual worlds of its people. The rate of population growth has stayed the same, but this is the result of the higher than average birth-rate, and there are ghost "auls," or villages, deserted by the population. For example, the village of Ourga had more than 10,000 people living there in 196O, but within a period of five to six years there was not a single person left in the village. All of them had been made to move to the more welcoming (from an environmental standpoint) Kungrad Region. Only a few people knew about this. Back in 1965, when a Communist Party Central Committee Decree was issued on land use and on establishing the USSR Ministry for Water (Minvodhoz), it was impossible to discuss it. The policies for the development of new areas and for changing the direction of flow of rivers were the guiding principle for the state industrial and agricultural systems in the period of totalitarian rule. And at the time people believed in a bright future. When that "bright future" dissolved with the disintegration of the USSR, the indigenous people of the Aral region seemed to have no hope left concerning the Sea's preservation or a better future. Some people had the means to move to prosperous places. Today, the notion of "environmental refugees" appears in the media. Those who had nowhere else to go remained in the land of their ancestors.

Now, however, the people of the Aral region can begin to hope for rescue, thanks to the increase in activity in international circles, due in large measure to the United Nations and especially to the support from international organizations in the form of humanitarian assistance. We are grateful for their help and, together with them, we have come to realize that it is not necessary for us to live the life of a beggar in the world community. As well as humanitarian help, we need investment in our local industries. Today, there are only six joint enterprises in Karakalpakstan, of which only two are in operation, both of them small scale. We need to develop many more such enterprises.

Our oversights are probably as much to blame for this situation, the oversights of activists in the cultural sphere such as writers, journalists, and film-makers. It was perhaps our attempts to draw attention to the rapidly increasing scale of the Aral region's ecological catastrophe that frightened the international community, especially businessmen. This may explain why bigger enterprises are being established far from the Aral region.

Yes, we in Central Asia in general, and in the Karakalpak Republic in particular, have lived at some distance from world civilization. Yes, we have remained in an environmental disaster zone with a backward economy. Yes, our comprehension of the world at large has increased. Yes, we have new state borders following independence. But, we do live in a common world after all, and concern about the Aral ecological disaster zone has been broadening. The appearance of the newly created Aralkum (Aral desert), together with the ancient great deserts of Central Asia - Karakum, Kyzylkom, and Ourst Ourt - could have dangerous regional if not international consequences.

I would like to suggest the following:

1. that all the states of the region set free the region's two great rivers, the Amudarya and the Syrdarya, and readjust their agricultural activities in order to save water resources; it is necessary in planning water consumption to take into consideration the possible needs of the Aral Sea and its surrounding areas;

2. the cooperation of regional states' activities in solving the ecological, economic, and legal problems of the Aral ecological disaster zone, relying when necessary on the help of independent experts from the United Nations and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.

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