Ecological horrors of the Aral Sea could reach Westgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Analysis: Ecological horrors of the Aral Sea could reach West Friday, 27 October 2000 0:36 (ET)
Analysis: Ecological horrors of the Aral Sea could reach West By JOHN C.K. DALY
WASHINGTON, Oct 26 (UPI) -- The Aral Sea was the world's fourth-largest lake, after the Caspian Sea, Lake Victoria and Lake Superior. Its expanse was equivalent to that of Southern California, draining an immense area covering Tajikistan, Afghanistan, northeastern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.
During the 1950s, 60 cubic kilometers of water flowed each year into the Aral Sea. Soviet central planners in Moscow then decided that Central Asia would become the Soviet Union's cotton plantation, and the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were diverted for irrigation. Some 50 years later, scientists estimate that the Aral receives 1 to 5 cubic kilometers per year; 35 kilometers is necessary simply to stabilize the remaining shoreline.
The diversion of waters has led to a dramatic decrease in the Aral's surface area, shrinking from a total area of 26,000 kilometers (15,600 miles) in the 1960s to about 11,000 kilometers (6,600 miles) today. That is equivalent to losing lakes Erie and Ontario.
The decline of life in the Aral has been equally precipitous. Only two species of fish remain, from a one-time total of 20; just 38 of 178 indigenous animal species are extant.
The salt content of the Aral has increased 400 percent, giving it a concentration higher than in the North Sea. The moderating effect of the Aral on the desert climate has also been lost. The region's weather has become more continental, with warmer summers and cooler winters. The climate is much drier and temperatures more variable.
The effect on the local population has been equally catastrophic. Drinking water contains 7-16 times the maximum permissible level of pollutants and pesticides; this rises to 900 times the acceptable levels in drainage and irrigation canals. Many pregnant women in the region suffer from anemia. Seventy percent of 10th-grade boys have serious morphological abnormalities in their sperm, and morbidity rates for malignant tumors increasing 3 percent a year. Life expectancy is as low as 40 for men in some areas abutting the Aral, while infant mortality rates reach 110 per 1,000 births.
As the sea shrinks, salinated land emerges. An estimated 75 million tons of toxic salt and dust each year now blow off the exposed seabed and travel as far as the Himalayas, Belarus and the Arctic shores of Russia.
Uzbekistan cannot unfortunately can not wean itself from its dependence on "white gold;" the country produces over 5 million tons of cotton per year, which accounts for nearly one-third of state revenues.
Even worse, at the heart of the Aral tragedy is a witch's brew of toxins. The Aral Sea region was where some of the most toxic diseases and viruses were field-tested by Soviet scientists; it was also chosen as a disposal site for Soviet-engineered pathogens.
The Aral's Vozrozhdeniye Island was the main open-air testing ground for Soviet biological weapons, including battlefield-ready samples of tularemia, epidemic typhus, Q-fever, smallpox, plague, anthrax, Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis, glanders, brucellosis, and Marburg infection. Numerous other agents were studied for possible use as biological weapons, including the Ebola virus, AIDS, Junin (Argentine hemorrhagic fever), Machupo virus (Bolivian hemorrhagic fever), yellow fever, Lassa fever, Japanese encephalitis and Russian spring-summer encephalitis.
When the Soviet Union in 1988 decided to get rid of the evidence of their chemical-biological warfare program, nearly 100 tons of anthrax spores was loaded into steel drums, doused with bleach and shipped to Vozrozhdeniye, where the sludge was dumped into trenches and covered with sand.
Despite slipshod efforts at eradication, the anthrax has survived. American scientists have been visiting the island for the past four years and have been able to culture anthrax from their samples. The pulmonary form of anthrax has a fatality rate that can reach 90 percent.
As the Aral Sea shrinks, Vozrozhdeniye has grown from 200 to 2,000 kilometers (120 to 1,200 miles). The regional worry is that a land bridge will form to the island, allowing infected wildlife to transmit these diseases to the mainland. At one point there is only a 5-foot-deep, 2-mile-long water channel between Vozrozhdeniye and the coast. Scientists from Kazakhstan believe that if nothing is done, the island will be joined to the mainland within 10 years. Kazakhstan has already experienced outbreaks of plague in Aralsk, a port city.
These toxins will not necessarily be confined to Central Asia, however. In June, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that Osama bin Laden's associates had recently bought anthrax and bubonic plague viruses from Kazakh arms dealers. Economic desperation and terrorism are a potent mix.
Should these viral agents be unleashed, the human and economic cost would be enormous. A 1997 report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that such an attack on 100,000 people would cause tens of thousands of deaths and cost between $477.7 million to $26.2 billion. Emergency services would be immediately overwhelmed.
The West must immediately focus its attention on the ecological and biological implications of the Aral Sea debacle, and help Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan resolve their problems. Oherwise, their problems may visit the West in a form more virulent than anything seen since the Black Death. As the Uzbek proverb says, "At the beginning, you drink water; at the end, you drink poison."
- (John C.K. Daly, Ph.D., is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.)
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), October 27, 2000