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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--Who Killed The Aral Sea?

Washington, 25 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - A decision by the World Bank to provide assistance for improving the water supply in Uzbekistan calls attention to one of the greatest ecological disasters of all times: the death of the Aral Sea.

That Central Asian body of water has shrunk from more than 26,000 square miles in the 1960s to only 11,000 square miles today. And current projections suggest that this inland sea will disappear entirely sometime in the next 15 years.

Its demise has already had serious consequences for both the ecological system of the region and the health of the Central Asian population. Wind-carried salt dust from the former seabed has contaminated the surrounding soil and water supplies.

And that contamination in turn has extracted a terrible price from the millions of people living nearby, leading to diseases that have cut life expectancies in the regions immediately adjoining the former sea to under 40 years.

The $75 million loan promised by the World Bank last Thursday will not solve these massive problems, as Bank officials themselves concede, even in combination with additional aid from Germany, Kuwait and Uzbekistan.

Instead, this assistance has the effect of highlighting the magnitude of this disaster. Moreover, it inevitably raises the question as to why this ecological tragedy was allowed to happen in the first place.

In announcing the World Bank loan, Roger Batstone, the Bank's coordinator for Central Asian assistance, blamed the death of the Aral Sea on "the extraction of large quantities of water for irrigation."

And subsequent media commentaries last week noted that this over-use of the rivers flowing into the inland Aral Sea reflected a drive by Moscow to make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in the production of cotton.

Earlier Soviet efforts to promote cotton production in Central Asia certainly did contribute to the destruction of the Aral Sea. They led officials in the region to draw far too much water from the rivers that fed it.

And the increasing use of chemical fertilizers to promote cotton production in Central Asia poisoned both the rivers and the sea itself. That in turn continues to have the most serious health consequences for the people of the region.

But the explanations offered last week for the death of the Aral Sea are incomplete in a double sense. On the one hand, they ignore the original reason the Soviet government imposed cotton monoculture on Central Asia.

And on the other, they ignore other important factors lying behind the death of the Aral Sea.

Like the tsarist regime before it, the Soviet government sought to promote cotton as the predominant crop in Central Asia first and foremost as a means to keep that region under control.

To the extent that Central Asians had to exchange the cotton they produced for food produced elsewhere in the Soviet Union, they would not be in a position to act independently.

Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet authorities routinely argued that the introduction of cotton would break the power of the anti-Soviet basmachi movement by depriving the latter of an independent supply of food.

But the "cotton" explanation for the death of the Aral Sea ignores three other factors that have also played a role in the death of that body of water and in undermining of the health of people living around it.

First, the population explosion in Central Asia since the 1950s has also placed ever greater demands on the flow of rivers feeding the Aral Sea. And that explosion, while moderating relative to a generation ago, continues to this day.

Second, efforts by the countries of the region to increase their industrial production during the last decade particularly have also placed new demands on the water supply.

And third, the general failure first of the Soviet government and then of the governments of the region and the world to address this problem in a timely fashion have meant that many opportunities to save the situation have been missed.

Now, as even the World Bank admits, no one is "going to solve the Aral Sea crisis." And as a result, the death of that body of water can now only serve as a warning to everyone about the fragility of the environment and about the dangers of human arrogance.