Cover Image
close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart II: The Aral Sea
close this folder5. the Aral Sea and socio-economic development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe technical system of cotton monoculture
View the documentThe cotton swindle
View the documentEnvironmental problems and human health
View the documentThe problem of pesticide pollution
View the documentThe environment of the Aral Sea and international cooperation
View the documentThe future of Central Asia
View the documentRecommendations
View the documentReferences


Tsuneo Tsukatani


The states of Central Asia have once again appeared on the international stage, abandoning the 70-year experiment of Soviet socialism. What is happening there today is, as has happened since the dawn of history, also sure to decide the fate of humans. States in this region are facing a serious economic crisis. These states consist of more than 100 ethnic groups, possess large numbers of conventional and nuclear weapons, face Islamic countries to the south, and lie midway between China and Europe. Lack of economic progress could easily lead to serious conflicts within and between these countries.

In addition, Central Asia is facing serious environmental problems. These problems, mostly started in the early 1960s, head the list of global environmental problems in that their size and the difficulty of solving them are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Many people, including leaders of the states, however, are more concerned about "business" than about sustainable development that meets the needs not only of the present generations but also of future ones. The transition to a market-oriented economy will take many years, but the victims of the environmental disruption are dying day by day and the people are suffering.

This chapter seeks to identify what kind of political and economic structure caused the environmental disruption, and to show that what lies behind the discrepancy between desire and reality is the same as what caused the environmental disruption.

The technical system of cotton monoculture

A cry of despair

In June 1984, the 16th Plenary Session of the Uzbekistan Communist Party Central Committee uttered a cry of despair:

In the first three years of the last five-year plan, of the 44 enterprises and production facilities put into operation during this time, half are experiencing considerable delays in reaching their rated capacity. Dozens of machine tools stand idle because of a lack of relatively insignificant parts.

In the past few years the Ministry of the Cotton-Processing Industry has not fulfilled its plans, fiber output has declined, fiber quality has deteriorated, and waste and losses of raw cotton have grown. Report-padding and persistent theft have become widespread. Demoralization has set in among many categories of personnel, including certain executives of the ministry, enterprises and procurement stations. Paper transactions have been carried out on a large scale, and bribery has flourished.

In the past few years, cotton mills and procurement stations in Tashkent region have violated standard requirements when accepting raw cotton, and indices for moisture and impurity content have been understated. As a result, the Tashkent Cotton Procurement and Production Association is not ensuring the planned output of fiber and is allowing extensive over consumption of raw cotton and large amounts of waste.

Whereas in 1980 one hectare of plowed land produced 1,337 rubles' worth of output, last year productivity fell to 1,241 rubles' worth. Mistakes are still being made in the design, construction and operation of irrigation systems, and the area of unused arable land increased from 4,000 hectares in 1975 to 67,000 hectares in 1983. Because of mismanagement and disregard for technical and economic calculations, newly created state farms in Khorezm and a number of other provinces are operating inefficiently. Mismanagement has led to the disuse of land after a single harvest in the Makhankulsky, Urtachulsky, Varakhshinsky and Shakhrisabz tracts. Their reconstruction will require millions of additional rubles.

Corruption in the social system produces the stagnation of technology, and then the stagnation of technology leads to further corruption of the social system, and so on. In the former Soviet Union, where there were plenty of resources such as oil, metals, water, and labour, the only resource that had been exhausted was the development of civilian technology and a social system that stimulates technological development. It was stagnation of agricultural technology that promoted corruption in cotton production and the depletion of the Aral Sea.

The level of mechanization

The level of mechanization of cotton agriculture was extremely low and inefficient. Even in the harvesting season of 1984, which occurred after the 16th Plenary Session mentioned above, 17,000 harvesting machines out of 37,000 were completely unused. Up until 1980, more than 3.5 million metric tons of raw cotton were harvested by machine, nearly two-thirds of the total volume. In 1984, however, only 1.5 million metric tons of cotton were picked by machine, which represented only 44 per cent for the whole of Uzbekistan. Many collective and state farms harvested just 5 to 20 per cent of their crops by machine. On the farms of the Bukhara region, each machine accounted for 5 tons of harvested cotton, i.e. each machine operated for an average of two days in 1984. There were also farms where harvesting equipment was not used at all.

Irrigation technology

Irrigation technology was far from an automated system. Of the 19 million hectares of irrigated land in the former USSR, just over 7 million hectares were equipped with sprinklers. The remaining area relied on surface irrigation, where water is channelled into furrows by means of gravity. In almost all cases, this was done manually, using shovels and hoes, wasting a great deal of time and energy. The irrigation equipment of the Uzbek state and collective farms comprises nearly 150,000 machines. But they no longer fully meet present requirements. In the late 1970s, the first models of the Kuban broad swath sprinkler were introduced, at a cost 400 per cent higher than that of the old machines. Another machine, the DDN-70 unit, washed away up to 30 tons of soil per hectare, removing the fertile topsoil and more than half the seeds along with it.

The workforce

The workforce was poorly organized. There are many in the Ministry of Agriculture's departments and administrations who have absolutely no specialist knowledge or understanding of agriculture's needs and who have neither work experience nor higher-level agricultural diplomas. For example, in Bukhara Oblast, 20 per cent of the collective farm chairmen and 40 per cent of the state farm directors did not have an agricultural education. In the same oblast, two or three city people came to harvest cotton for every collective farmer and state farm worker. On the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm in Altyaryk District, the collective farmers harvested 905 metric tons of raw cotton; each picker handed over an average of 1,400 kg of cotton to the raw-cotton mill. On the same farm, the outsiders who came to help picked 1,328 tons of raw cotton, each of them accounting for an average of 2,500 kg of raw cotton. Machines on that farm picked only 3 per cent of the total.

No concept of cost

Estimates suggest that 1.5 million farmers were involved in raising cotton. If each of them were to work 33 days in a season to harvest just 60 kg a day, they could hand-pick more than 3 million tons of cotton. If each one of the 37,000 picking machines were to collect 80 tons in one season, another 3 million tons of cotton could be collected. The real situation was completely different from this, however. The reason is clear; there was no concept of cost. In 1987, a collective farmer was paid just 8 kopeks per kg of hand-picked cotton. But city residents, in addition to regular daily wages averaging 8.5 rubles, received not only 10 kopeks per kg from the farm, but another 20 kopeks per kg from their regular employer. Aside from whether they were really paid, even students made 30 kopeks per kg. Meanwhile, the farmer had to harvest his private crops, and the profit he made from selling his products at the market accounted for a sizeable part of his family's income; it dwarfed what he would make from harvesting cotton. Instead of going out in the fields, the adults travelled to market to sell their privately grown produce or to make the rounds of the shops.

Cotton processing

There are also many problems at the stage of cotton processing. In the summer of 1960, when a Japanese delegation from the textile machine industry visited Tashkent, among other places, it reported that the general level of machinery was the same as that of Japan of 15 years earlier (Izumi, 1960). This meant that their technology had not changed since the end of World War II. The same comment can be applied to contemporary technology as well. The most serious problem lies in cotton-processing technology, because it proved unable to handle the massive volume of machine-harvested cotton, which has more moisture and impurities than hand-harvested cotton. The cotton-processing period has been much longer than that in other countries, starting in August and ending in mid-June of the next year. It was claimed that this reduced the seasonal variation in labour work and provided workers with stable conditions. But the real reason was a shortage of capacity in processing plants for ginning. Procurement centres are also running short of the machinery necessary to dry cotton. The ratio of fibre production to raw cotton of the firstgrade quality in Uzbekistan decreased from 34.1 per cent to 30.2 per cent (Izahara, 1990).

Textile industry

Although Uzbekistan is the fifth-largest producer of cotton in the world, it has virtually no textile industry of its own. Only 12 per cent of the country's cotton production is processed domestically. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, and the German Hermes fund, as well as several firms from Turkey, Japan, and other countries have offered to help Uzbekistan modernize cotton production and establish its own textile industry. To modernize its industry, Uzbekistan will need no less than US$1 billion before the year 2000. A policy oriented towards developing a domestic processing industry and a radical change in cotton-growing technology and soil treatment is expected to have its first results in five to seven years. Specialists calculate that, if the planned set of measures were fully implemented, the share of domestically processed cotton would rise to 20 per cent, allowing Uzbekistan to become a leader among the world's textile exporters.

The cotton swindle

Sharaf Rashidov, 1959 to 1983

If we are to speak about cotton and irrigation in the former Soviet Union, we must not forget Sharaf Rashidov, the late First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party Central Committee. He held the position from 1959 until his death in 1983. Before and after he became the First Secretary, internal strife was horrendous, and it was only in 1971 that Rashidov succeeded in filling the chairmanship of the Republic Council of Ministers and of the Presidium of the Uzbekistan Supreme Soviet with his followers (Carlisle, 1986). An organized state crime group, the so-called Uzbek mafia, was formed around this time. Crime usually involves a cross-section of society, but the activity of the Uzbek mafia demonstrates the real situation in contemporary Central Asia and its future. Rashidov understood clearly what was required of a republic leader, and managed to present himself in the Kremlin's corridors of power as a man personally devoted to General Secretary Brezhnev. The cotton monoculture was the creation of Rashidov himself. A sharp deterioration in irrigated land did not stop the continuous increase in the Five-Year Plan, and gave rise to report-padding. The embezzlement of federal money, acquired by reporpadding, automatically increased the annual procurement targets. Every figure went on increasing, even though it was clear that the farmers could not achieve the procurement plan. Because the plan's targets had to be met, an atmosphere was gradually created that encouraged report-padding on a massive scale.

Not quality but quantity

It was not the quantity and quality of ginned cotton (lint) but the weight of raw cotton that was inspected at the procurement centre to set the price of cotton. Report-padding was an everyday occurrence. Invoices were issued, with no goods backing them up, in order to acquire money from Moscow. The percentage of moisture or of "make weight" stones was understated. But there were still huge shortfalls in the ginning process. So it was also necessary to conceal the shortfalls in the ginning process, and this was done by any means to hand. This explains a paradox: the cotton harvest had been growing, whereas fabric production had been decreasing. Shortfalls of 0.5 to 1 million metric tons had to be produced every year on paper, for which the state paid. The money rarely went to those who toiled in the fields. It disappeared along the way, with the aid of fake work orders and paylists and fictitious persons, creating a "cash box" to fund future bribes at reception centres. In this way, a vicious circle came into being: report-padding, then embezzlement, then bribes. In Uzbekistan questions were never resolved without a bribe. Anyone offering a bribe got what they wanted. The outcome was greed, abuse of office for mercenary motives, a lack of supervision, immorality, mutual protection, graft, unscrupulousness, favouritism by geographical origin, nepotism, suppression of subordinates' initiative, and trying to please higher-ups.

The structure of the swindle

Because such matters were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Rashidov selected as his main target Mr. Churbanov, a son-in-law of Brezhnev. Churbanov rose to become First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs early in 1980. One of Brezhnev's close associates, Shchelokov, who was the USSR Minister of Internal Affairs, was also chosen as a member of the Uzbek mafia. Uzbekistan's Minister of Internal Affairs and three deputy ministers, directors of provincial internal affairs administrations, joined it too. All affairs were controlled by these actors. This was a systematic crime in the socialist state where quantity, not the quality, was the only thing that was evaluated. It was not until 1984 that quality was taken into account for payment (Juurokuhara, 1985). This explains why the formal statistics for the cotton harvest decreased suddenly in 1984. In the previous year, investigations started for the first time, and revealed that the republic's statistics before 1984 were a fiction. The investigations revealed that between 1978 and 1983 alone 4.5 million tons of raw cotton were produced on paper only. This cost the state 4 billion rubles (US$6.7 billion) in total, half of which went into the pockets of the leaders.

The start of investigations

Brezhnev died in November 1982. His successor, Andropov, who had been the Chairman of the KGB, dismissed Minister Shchelokov and began to investigate the crimes. He believed that socialism would more likely develop if scandals were exposed. Uzbekistan was the main target for Andropov and the KGB. A team from the USSR Prosecutor's Office started an investigation of Uzbek corruption in 1983. Though Rashidov was partly successful at that time in removing the leaders of the republic's KGB, thus isolating the USSR Prosecutor's team, Andropov succeeded in exposing the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. One day in 1983, First Deputy Prime Minister Aliyev, who was the chairman of the Azerbaijan KGB, from Moscow, visited Rashidov in Tashkent to pass on Andropov's tacit message. The next day, Rashidov suddenly died. Then, the Uzbek affair took a new turn, as the investigations spread through the whole country. Usmankhodzhayev, Rashidov's successor, vowed at the funeral that Uzbekistan would keep Rashidov's pledge to produce 6 million metric tons of raw cotton. He was able to do this by ordering the chairman of Uzbekistan's Council of Ministers to pad the figures by another 240,000 tons. All told, nearly 1 million tons of non-existent cotton were "produced" that year. When the cotton swindle in Uzbekistan was exposed, 18,000 people were expelled from the Party, and 330 people from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor's Office, along with 600 leaders of the government and the Party, were prosecuted. However, the social structure did not change.

The aftermath

No one ever expected to be punished for the crime. Though the Party expelled those who confessed to their crimes and removed them from their jobs, those who kept quiet continued to enjoy security and comfort. It is a contradiction for the Party to investigate itself, in that it controls everything (Tishkov, 1991). Proving bribery was almost impossible. The crude investigation, which was peculiar to the Soviet Union, was not enough to prove a swindle protected by the strong and secret organization of the Party mafia. Some key personnel were sentenced to death without the structure of the criminal activity being clarified, and some committed suicide. Every piece of criminal evidence was lost. When leading officials in the Kremlin were to be investigated, the prosecutors were ordered to stop. Some of the prosecutors had political ambitions and were standing for election. In the end, the investigation, which gave priority to confession, disintegrated completely. The decision was taken to transfer the case to Tashkent after republic President Islam Karimov appealed to the USSR Supreme Court, noting that it was necessary to take into consideration the "specific character of the republic and the existing realities." Even Churbanov, Brezhnev's former son-in-law, was released in 1993 on the decree of Yeltsin. Others involved in this crime had been released a long time ago. Nobody knows how the Russian decree was issued, who initiated it, and why. Sharaf Rashidov, whose name is increasingly heard, was also re-established in 1993 as a national hero of Uzbekistan. It means that President Karimov has to continue an Asian autocracy to keep the economy stable - as long as he keeps the old regime.

Environmental problems and human health

Infant mortality

Infant mortality (the number of infant deaths under one year of age per 1,000 births) is an important indicator of the degree of maturity of a society. Data on deaths, specifically infant mortality, were among the greatest secrets in the former Soviet Union. Figures were first disclosed in 1986 after Gorbachev began his glasnost campaign, allowing more openness in society. However, international criteria have not yet been adopted with respect to statistical methods, and the figures could be double or triple. It is evident that Central Asia is now confronted with highly adverse circumstances on a scale unparalleled elsewhere in the world.


It has been reported that in the Karakalpak republic of Uzbekistan 11 per cent of all babies born there die before they are one year old one of the highest infant mortality rates in Asia. It is also reported that two-thirds of people there suffer from hepatitis, typhoid or throat cancer, and that 83 per cent of children have serious illnesses. Among people of all ages, cases of infectious hepatitis, jaundice, and gastrointestinal disease have multiplied. Malnutrition, anaemia, rickets, and even leprosy have reappeared.


Kazakhstan is in the same situation. In the 1970s and 1980s it showed a 3-29-fold rise in total morbidity for various infectious and somatic diseases associated with the drastic worsening of the ecological situation in the Aral Sea region. Child and maternal mortality rates have significantly increased. Investigations at the Institute for Regional Nutritional Problems of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences have shown that pesticides, mineral fertilizers, and various microorganisms and their toxic metabolites are major pollutants of food products in all Kazakhstan regions (Sharmanov, 1989). The important role played by nutritional status in showing the carcinogenic effect of nitro compounds must be established. A complex of measures aimed at improving state sanitary control over the environment and food products must also be elaborated. It must be noted that environmental degradation in Central Asia is directly connected not only with irrigation but also with dirty industries. Radioactive pollution in Leninabad (Uzbekistan) and Maili Sai (Kyrgyzstan), and heavy metal air pollution in Chimkent (Kazkahstan), among others, are all connected to the Aral Sea problem, but they must be solved separately.


The situation in Turkmenistan is much worse. In 1989, 125,054 infants were born and 6,846 died under the age of one (a mortality of 54.74/1,000). Stores in Takhta District, which is located along the right bank of the Amudarya, have not sold butter, meat, or chicken for the past 10 years. Some 85 per cent of families in the district do not have their own livestock and, therefore, it is very difficult to buy meat, milk, and dairy products even in the market. In some families, especially large ones, children are dying of starvation. In many rural areas of Turkmenistan, the autocratic state which was thought to have prevailed until the beginning of this century still exists. Among the chairmen of Turkmenian collective farms there are quite a few who behave like absolute rulers, masters of people's fates within their territory. No one has the right there to marry without their consent. Turkmenistan produces two and a half times as much raw cotton per capita as Tajikistan. Production of cotton, both per capita and as a proportion of the arable land, is the highest in Central Asia. This explains the acute shortage of foodstuffs, rising social tension, chronic hunger, and high infant mortality. Hereditary diseases - autosomal recessive (or latent) - may be another cause of high infant mortality. Intra-family marriages (most often between cousins) are common in Turkmenistan, sometimes accounting for 10 per cent or more of the total, and in some places accounting for 60 per cent. The economic reason for these blood ties is bride price ("kalym"). Those who demand and pay a bride price and those who keep a young woman confined in her father's house after the 40-day "honeymoon" until the husband's relatives pay the bride price in full (which can take years) are rarely punished.


Even highly educated leading medical doctors need to understand the role of infection in modern medicine. The direct cause of any disease ending in death is attributable to infection. No matter what kind of modern and high-tech medical equipment and medicines are introduced into Central Asia from Western countries, they will be either useless or dangerous to patients if public and medical concern about infection is not heightened. Mothers are quite often the carriers of infection and their babies die of intra-uterine septicaemia.

It has been very difficult to establish the real reasons why children are getting sick and dying in Central Asia. Doctors have most often diagnosed the problem as pneumonia, which is hard to disprove. People used to believe that their children died of pneumonia. In fact, these deaths were most often caused by infectious diseases, particularly intestinal infections that can be prevented. However, if the deaths can be blamed on pneumonia, then no one is responsible and no additional facilities or services have to be established. Only 40 per cent of the republic's population has a piped water supply. The rest use water from irrigation canals and ditches. This affects not just villages or small towns. Cities, even in Tashauz, have no sewerage systems. Where there is a water purification plant, the equipment is not properly maintained.

The problem of pesticide pollution

Pollution of water and soil

The catastrophe of the Aral Sea can be summarized in one word: cotton. For years, huge overdoses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants have been poured onto the cotton fields. Among them were DDT, BHC, methyl mercaptophos, octamethyl, butifos, milbex, hexachlorane (BHO), phosphamide (dimethoate), phosalone, lenacil, ronit (Ro-Neet), yalan (molinate), sodium TCA, chlorazone, and aldrin. The chemicals are not only discharged into the rivers through drainage canals, but have also filtered through to the groundwater layer when the salinated land is flushed by huge amounts of irrigation water, thus creating capillary channels between surface water and groundwater. The capillary action carries groundwater containing minerals and chemicals to the surface, where they are left to accumulate after the evaporation of the water. The groundwater itself also carries chemicals to the lower part of the river basin, where people are forced to use it for drinking and cooking.

In Uzbekistan, an average of 146.8 kg of chemical fertilizer in 1965, 238.3 kg in 1975, and 305.6 kg in 1987 was applied to each hectare of agricultural land, whereas the figure was 122.1 kg in 1987 for the whole USSR. Pesticides and herbicides too were dumped onto the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. In 1980, for example, 121,400 tons of chemicals were used. In the late 1970s, the total amount was between 30 and 35 kg per hectare on Uzbekistan's cultivated land, almost 30 times higher than the average for the whole USSR.

Butifos and its history

Butifos (S, S, S-tributyl-trithiophosphate; (C4H9S)3PO) is similar to the American preparations Folex and DEF. It was recommended for use in 1964 on the initiative of the USSR Ministry of the Chemical Industry and the USSR Ministry of Agriculture's State Commission on Chemical Herbicides and Pesticides, with the consent of the USSR Ministry of Public Health but with incomplete data on its toxicity. Butifos acts on the human body by affecting the central nervous system, the heart, the liver, and the kidneys and disturbing immunological reactivity, especially in children. The nauseating stench from the fields creeps over villages and suburbs, causing a sharp deterioration in the way residents feel, and sometimes leading to dangerous allergic reactions. In 1983, finally responding to the demands of the republic's physicians and scientists, the USSR Ministry of Public Health banned the use of butifos in agriculture altogether. But it reserved the right to authorize its use in certain campaigns and in certain republics at the request of interested departments. In 1984 roughly 70 per cent of Uzbekistan's fields were treated with butifos, and in 1985 the figure was still about 60 per cent.

Substitutes and intoxication

Substitutes appeared as early as 1965. The Institute of Chemistry of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences developed a less toxic, inexpensive, and sufficiently effective defoliant based on calcium cyanamide. Its proposal was rejected by the Ministry of Agriculture, which claimed that the republic was already supplied with an "effective" defoliant. By the late 1970s, another preparation was developed in the republic that was superior to butifos in every way and was still only slightly toxic. This preparation, known as UDM, underwent the prescribed tests and in 1980 received the approval of the highest authority the USSR Ministry of Agriculture's State Commission on Chemical Herbicides and Pesticides. It was only in March 1987, however, that the USSR Ministry of Public Health banned the production and usage of butifos.

With regard to the health status of schoolchildren living in a rural area of Uzbekistan, a high proportion of diseases of the nervous system and mental disorders may be associated with chronic pesticide intoxication and Beketova, 1993). It has been noted that in regions where toxic chemicals are intensively used children exhibit a significant decrease in phagocytic activity of leukocytes (Sadikova et al., 1990). Examinations of the eyes of 5-14-year-old children living near fields and exposed to pesticides revealed significant increases in intra-ocular pressure and in humour production (Khamdamov, 1976). Water samples from different sources to the south of the Aral Sea region indicate the ability to induce chromosomal abnormalities in the somatic and sexual cells of mammals (Zakhidov et al., 1993). A four-fold increase in chromosomal rearrangement and a five-fold increase in polychromatophilic erythrocytes with micronuclei were found in the bone marrow of wild mice caught in cotton fields subjected to intensive application of various pesticides (Khalikov, 1990).

The environment of the Aral Sea and international cooperation

Overview of the situation

The Uzbek Academy of Sciences says that a new desert has been created to the south and east of the Aral Sea, and has already expanded to 5 million hectares. It is spreading more rapidly across Central Asian countries than the Sahara desert. The new desert, which is expanding at the rate of 150,000 hectares every year, could be called a "white desert" because the toxic salt pans encrust its surface after merging with the Karakum (black desert), Kyzylkum (red desert), and other deserts.

Fishing villages once on the shore are now between 30 and 80 km from the shoreline. All sea life has died, and fishing communities have been destroyed. When I visited Bugun, once a fishing village at the mouth of Syrdarya, in 1991, former fishermen were working in factories smoking and packing sea fish. The fish came from distant Atlantic fisheries such as Murmansk by train with no concern for the cost. This was an unemployment policy on a large scale at the end of the Soviet Union.

The cooling effect that the sea used to have on the hot summers of Central Asia has diminished, cutting rainfall and accelerating desertification processes in the region. Chemicals used on irrigated fields drain into the Sea, sink to the seabed, and form toxic salt pans as the Sea dries. The chemicals are then lifted into the atmosphere by winds and later fall on the area in rain, causing high rates of infant mortality and sickness. Eight or nine times a year, dust storms drop 5 million tons of salt, sand, and dust on Central Asia. The sky becomes obscured by a salty curtain, and the sun turns crimson and disappears behind the salt dust. Not one tree grows on the land, and livestock are perishing. The people, too, get sick and die.

Two views on the fate of the Aral Sea

The conclusion may be that the regeneration of the Aral Sea is not an option because far greater economic benefit can be derived from the use of river water for irrigation than from its runoff into the Aral Sea. This view is economic and technocratic and does not take into account a whole range of factors that support the view that the Sea should be preserved. The Sea has played a role in fisheries and transportation, and has supported the life of people there. Nor is it possible fully to estimate the consequences for nature and the economy of any human intervention that assumes the non-economic importance of the Aral Sea. The moral responsibility of our generation to preserve this vulnerable and unique natural legacy for our descendants is of greater importance. Moreover, we have just started to evaluate the total effect of cotton monoculture on nature and the economy. Several ways of dealing with the Aral Sea problem have emerged.

Coping with the Aral Sea problem


One long-standing scheme is to divert the waters of such Siberian rivers as the Ob, Irtysh, and Yenisey and to channel them southward to the Aral Sea region and to the desert. This reminds us of the words of Ivan Michurin: "We cannot wait for favors from nature; our task is to seize them from her" (Davydov, 1949). This plan has been cancelled after years of controversy about its cost and environmental consequences, but some local scientists are still hanging on to the idea. Another suggestion was to break up the glaciers of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains with nuclear explosions. The Amudarya, in its turn, would be topped up by water from the River Indus. Other plans include the construction of a water intake on the River Kabul, from which a pipeline would cross Pakistan and Afghanistan. These ideas may be tainted by gigantomania and are not realistic, especially at a time of economic crisis. However, such ideas are sure to survive.

Blame Moscow

A second reaction is to blame Moscow for ignorance and corruption. Central planners in Moscow no doubt calculated that by massive irrigation they could simultaneously develop their backward southern regions, provide enough jobs for the indigenous people, and have them serve Russia. Almost all the raw cotton was sent north for processing, and successive five-year plans required still more irrigated land. Because the plan provided the wrong incentives, quality and yields started to fall in 1980. People in the affected area - about 35 million of them - started to realize how much cotton slavery had diminished their lives. Moscow, suggesting that their hardship was their own fault, then sent a group of prosecutors and KGB to accuse local leaders of ignorance, mismanagement, and corruption. Even Gorbachev himself once criticized Uzbekistan for squandering water and not pulling its weight. Until the independence of the republics, the intellectuals of the region - especially writers and scientists were less willing to let the citizens of Central Asia take all the blame. Since independence, it has been clear that it is the citizens of Central Asia who have to suffer the hardships and pains.

A business-as-usual strategy

In the first four years of the 1980s, the Uzbek Agro-Industrial Complex received 10 billion rubles from Moscow. Between 1966 and 1984, 21 billion rubles were invested in the development of the water resources of Uzbekistan. A considerable amount of this money was spent on bribery. In the irrigated area of Central Asia, which comprises more than 9.4 million hectares, part of the drainage network did not function. This, together with too little attention to crop rotation, led to the salinization of large areas. As a result, the area sown to alfalfa decreased, while cotton became the single crop. This has led to a situation in which soil fertility has fallen off, the incidence of cotton-plant disease has increased, and the volume and quality of the harvest have declined.

In each republic, farmers are seeking their own solutions. Some are directing the drainage flow into the desert and natural depressions in the steppe. The local soils are mostly light-textured and very permeable to water. This anarchic dumping of drainage water is raising the groundwater level, creating additional problems for both rural and urban people. Several lakes have appeared that are making pastureland boggy and encouraging insects. Moreover, the salty and poisonous water seeps into the ground, and gets into freshwater wells. But every well, even the smallest, is very valuable. Uzbek President Islam Karimov first urged international cooperation to save the Aral Sea on the 60th anniversary of the city of Nukus December 1992, but he has not yet addressed the question of cutting back cotton cultivation, which consumes the most water but also supplies 80 per cent of the nation's hard currency earnings. Turkmenistan, a desert land entirely dependent on water from the Amudarya, embarked on a new irrigation plan in 1993 which envisages the cultivation of 1.6 million hectares. Turkmenistan's Minister of Water Economy and Supply has said that it is impossible to save the Aral Sea and that it will become a dry, dead sea in 30 years. Turkmenistan's Minister for Agriculture and Food claims that the project is a national priority, intended to achieve self-sufficiency in grain and other crops. These plans reflect the behaviour of those who have few ideas about what to do other than to pursue a business-as-usual strategy.

Involve international society

Cooperation with international society is the only way to cope with the environmental problems in this area. The first conference of heads of state in Central Asia on the problems of the Aral Sea was held in Kzyl-Orda in March of 1993, with the participation of the Russian Deputy Premier. The conference set up an International Aral Foundation (IAF) and an Inter-State Council for the Aral Basin headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's President. Each of the [AF member countries was to contribute 1 per cent of its GNP annually to the Foundation. The conference also adopted an appeal to the United Nations. In January 1994, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan pledged to pay 1 per cent of their 1994 budgets into the fund (in Tajikistan the government faces a more severe crisis of civil war). Few financial statistics for each country are available, but Kazakhstan's GDP for 1994 was around 464.5 billion tenge and its national budget was around 80 billion tenge, and 1 per cent of these figures is US$72 million and US$12 million, respectively. The figures for Uzbekistan are US$10 billion for GDP and US$4 billion for national revenue, making the 1 per cent figures US$100 million and US$40 million, respectively.

Unfortunately, none of these countries was able to fulfil its pledge. Instead, responding to the setting-up of the IAF and the preceding appeal of the leaders, international organizations and foreign countries proposed financial and technical aid. In February 1993, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development prepared to provide technical and financial aid for environmental conservation projects in the area around the Aral Sea. In April, the German Red Cross decided to donate a water purification plant to Karakalpak victims. In May, Germany proposed DM 1.3 million for a comprehensive environmental survey and for water and soil research at the mouths of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers. In September, President Mitterand of France expressed his intention to participate in the Save Aral Project. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher promised a US$140 million aid package in October 1994, US$15 million of which was to improve the environment around the Aral Sea and the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing area. It was reported in January 1994 that India would give Uzbekistan US$500,000. Japan also pledged financial and technical aid in April 1994. The World Bank, having spent two years studying the problem, embarked on the development of costly projects. For the preparation of the programme, the World Bank granted US$41 million to the fund in November 1994.

The future of Central Asia

Cotton culture

Cotton is an important crop in the world. Its fibre is clean and it involves various fields of industry. It is an important crop in Central Asia because the production of synthetic fibres may pollute the environment. Most importantly, however, cotton can earn valuable hard currency in export markets. If Central Asia were to produce value-added "white gold," then cotton would surely be a winner in the world market. Uzbekistan, though it hopes to extend its cotton trade with foreign countries, lacks trading experience. Moreover, world cotton prices do not favour Central Asian producers. The cotton harvest is still falling, partly because the area under cultivation has been reduced in favour of grain production, but mainly because of the irrational use of harvesting machinery and because of shortages of fuel and spare parts. There still exist many technical and social barriers to a breakthrough in the present situation.

Cotton cultivation, which used to use free labour, needs the development of harvesting machinery suitable for each grade of cotton. The present machinery destroys the soil structure by its heaviness, its efficiency is low, and breakdowns are frequent. Drip irrigation systems should be developed where possible. A joint venture with the Israelis has proved at their pilot plot in Uzbekistan that the water consumption per unit of end product can be reduced by a factor of five. It is also true that the technology to save the Aral Sea is available. The biotechnological use of an anti-infiltration screen, invented in the 1950s by local scientists, could reduce water consumption by a factor of 10-100. The technology to deal with the Central Asian grey soils, which restrict germination, has also been proposed. More important is the development of labour-intensive industrial production facilities using local raw materials, as well as the expansion of a network of agro-industries, including warehouses, cold-storage facilities, canning and packaging enterprises, and transportation.

A spirit of self-help

What is necessary, above all, is huge investment and the complete reform of the social system in order to preserve the Aral Sea and its surroundings and to regenerate the Aral ecosystem, which includes humans. This is an urgent task for the present generation, but will also be a task for future generations. International cooperation and foreign investment will certainly be necessary, but what is more necessary is a spirit of self-help. Central Asia creates its own wealth and must decide how to apportion it. Central Asia itself needs to adopt new technologies and new institutions. Without a major shift in production and consumption habits at all levels, and a move from an emphasis on disposability and waste to one on re-use and recycling, there can be no solution either to this specific problem or to the economic crisis facing Central Asia. Such a movement, however, is very weak at present. A question remains: even if the international community comes up with billions of dollars, it is uncertain whether Central Asian leaders will want to borrow money for a scheme that generates no wealth. All aid from the international community may otherwise be wasted. The reason for the destructive irrigated agriculture in the first place was on the one hand a lack of concern for its effects either on the natural environment or on human life, and on the other hand the nature of the political and social structure, which required subsidies from Moscow. That structure still exists in Central Asia, i.e. to get money (e.g. subsidies) from London or Washington, D.C.


Preserving the cultural heritage of Central Asia

Why Kenesari saved Aristan

There is a story in a modern Kazakh novel by Iliyas Esenberlin (1969) about Sultan Kenesari, who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century (1802-1847) just before the completion of the Kazakh annexation to Russia in the 1860s. He tried to establish a Kazakh khanate independent of Russia. One day his followers captured an esteemed Kazakh folk-poet, Aristan, from the Atighay Kazakh clan (belonging to the Middle Horde). Aristan, however, was greedy for money and he received a great for deal helping the Russians to get a map of the Kazakh plains and to identify the location and movement of Kazakh tribes. Aristan had amassed considerable wealth by the time he was captured. When he was taken to Kenesari, he kissed Kenesari's boots and begged him not to kill him. Kenesari tried to hold back his anger and turned pale. He said:

The man who sells his nation is like an infected horse. In order to save other horses, there should not be any mercy for that infected horse. There is only one sentence - death! Although it sounds cruel, the sentence is just.

The followers of Kenesari remained silent. They did not react to Kenesari's decision. Aristan begged Kenesari to allow him to speak for the last time. When Kenesari agreed, Aristan sang a song:

O brother Kenesari, if you like me, I am your dear friend,
Even if you hate me, I'm one of your Alash [Kazakh nation].
I'm the son of Atighay Qarauli,
Who gave your father six wives.

[Keneke, jaqsï körseng qarashïngmïn,
Jek körseng de özîngnîng alashïngmïn,
Atanga altï qatïn alïp bergen
Atïghay Qarauïlding balasïmïn.]

Hearing these lines, Kenesari forgave this greedy poet. Then Kenesari's followers immediately applauded him for his correct decision about Aristan. The reason Kenesari forgave the poet was not because Aristan reminded him that he was an old friend, or because the poet was his kinsman. Aristan was a poet who knew thousands of Kazakh folk tales, epics, and songs. Killing him was equivalent to destroying a rich source of Kazakh culture and identity. Therefore, Kenesari's followers did not react when he sentenced the poet to die, but applauded his decision to free him.

Though this story reminds us of the wisdom and justness of the leaders of the Kazakh as free and independent adventurers, it draws attention to the preservation of the cultural heritage of Central Asia while emphasizing group consciousness.

The difficult situation in Central Asia

Scientists and young researchers are now in a difficult position in Central Asia. If they speak a foreign language and are asked to act as an interpreter, they can earn as much money in one day as their monthly salary. If they can arrange a deal with a foreign business, they may well be tempted to quit academic work. What does this mean? It means that the accumulated scientific legacy will rapidly disappear. Young graduates will not seek a career in the academic world, and the future of Central Asia will not be based on the sound development of society. Once science and culture have disappeared, it will take a very long time to regenerate them.

As for the Aral Sea problem, the main concern is whether the partners in any international cooperative action in Central Asia can afford to establish an effective institution there. The political structure is not stable because the transitional economy is deteriorating. A more powerful and reliable group would be the researchers in each country's research institutes. Science needs a common logic and common values. We should take notice of the researchers' talent and ability, and, more important, foster exchanges with researchers in foreign countries who have the capability to deal with the environmental and other problems that they face.

Coordinating Central Asia research

Research in Central Asia is carried out by three groups: national academies of sciences, institutes of higher learning, and industrial research institutes and centres. The national academies of sciences of Central Asia are the most prestigious centres of scientific research, to the extent that almost all leaders of each country are full members of their academy. The national academy, though fully retaining its independence, cooperates with the government in formulating plans for scientific research and development. The academy is a state agency whose main functions are to organize scientific management and to supervise theoretical research in the natural and social sciences being conducted in all the country's research centres. also determines the main directions of this research and coordinates it countrywide.

Among the academy's activities are the training of research personnel, the strengthening of ties between science and education, and the introduction of the latest knowledge and discoveries into the curricula and research programmes of higher education institutions. The broad cornerstone of an academy's activities is to blend the development of fundamental and applied research and to strengthen relations between science and the needs of the economy.

It seems clear that we need a carefully developed comprehensive research project for the regeneration of the environment of Central Asia, which should have an international level of significance and be implemented in close cooperation with colleagues from abroad. And it is the national academies of sciences of each republic that possess sufficiently high and versatile scientific potential to produce such a project. Their academies have great experience in the study of natural resources, the environment, and ecology - suffice it to say that a score of academic institutes deals directly with the research problems of the environment and nature.

The establishment of an international research centre

Researchers from Kyoto University in Japan and the Kazakh National Academy of Sciences propose to establish an International Centre for Central Asian Ecology in Central Asia. Its first aim is to undertake research on such global environmental problems as desertification, climate aridization, and radioactive pollution. A second goal is to identify and adapt new technologies and new institutions to Central Asian countries. This International Centre will welcome talented scientists in various fields from abroad as well as supporting (both morally and financially) scientists from Central Asia. The International Centre project proposes to integrate the resources of various scientific specialties on an interdisciplinary basis in order to offer solutions to the major environmental problems of the contemporary world. To achieve this will require a concentration of scientific expertise at an international level, and soundly based cooperation between the academic and industrial sectors. I hope that the international community will agree to this idea and help Central Asia achieve sound development.


Alekperov, I. I. 1980. "Current problems of the industrial hygiene of cotton growers." Gig Santi. 45(10), pp. 38 40.

Carlisle, D. S. 1986. "The Uzbek power elite: Politburo and Secretariat (1938-83)." Central Asian Survey 5(3/4), pp. 91-132.

Davydov, M. M. 1949. "The Ob' will enter the Caspian: The Yenisey-Ob'-Aral-Caspian water connection and energy problem." Sibirskiye ogni, no. 2, pp. 102110.

Esenberlin, I. 1969. Kahar, tarikhi roman [Anger. A historical story]. Alma-Ata: Dzhazushi.

Izahara, T. 1990. "Raw cotton of the USSR." Spinning Monthly Report, June, pp. 32-50 (in Japanese).

Izumi, S. 1960. "The present state of the textile industry of the USSR." Japan Spinning Monthly 166, pp. 2-22 (in Japanese).

Juurokuhara, T. 1985. "The present cotton situation of the USSR - the slump in the cotton harvest." Spinning Monthly Report, September, pp. 50 56 (in Japanese).

Khalikov, P. K. 1990. "The level of chromosome mutations in the bone marrow cells of wild mice trapped in an area of intensive pesticide use." Tsistol. Genet. 24, ISS 5, pp. 10-13.

Khalmetov, R. K. and L. M. Beketova. 1993. "Health status of children and adolescents in the main cotton growing region of Central Asia." Vestn. Ross. Akad. Med. Nauk, ISS 6, pp. 43-46.

Khamdamov, K. A. 1976. "Topographic examinations of the eye in children exposed to effects of pesticides applied agriculturally in some areas of Uzbekistan." Oftalmol. Zh. 31(3), p. 226.

Sadikova, S. S. et al. 1990. "Indicators of iron metabolism and cellular immunity in healthy children and in those with iron deficiency anemia in relation to ecological conditions." Pediatriia, ISS 8, pp. 41-44.

Sharmanov, T. S. 1989. "Nutrition and health in relation to ecology." Vest. Akad. Med. Nauk SSSR, pp. 27-30.

Tishkov, V. A. 1991. "The Soviet Empire before and after Perestroika." Theory and Society 20(5), pp. 603-629.

Zak, P. I. R. and T. S. Ergashev. 1980. "Experimental study of the effect of pesticide Butifos on female gonads." Med. Zh. Uzb. 2, pp. 48-50.

Zakhidov, S. T. et al. 1993. "The cytogenetic monitoring of the southern Aral Sea area. An evaluation of the genotoxic activity of the water." Izv. Akad. Nauk Ser. Biol., ISS 1, pp. 95-101.