Aral Sea

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Nov 16 08:46:07 MST 2000

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst
Dr. John C. K. Daly

[AUTHOR BIO: Dr. John C. K. Daly received his doctorate from the School of
Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London in Russian and
Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently a scholar at the Middle East
Institute, Washington.]

At the heart of the Aral Sea tragedy is a witch's brew of toxins. The Aral
Sea region was the location where Soviet scientists field tested some of
the world's most toxic diseases and viruses. The region was also chosen for
disposal of Soviet-engineered pathogens. It is crucial that the West
immediately focus its attention on the ecological and biological
implications of the Aral Sea debacle, and help Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
resolve their problems. Otherwise, their problems may visit the West in a
form more virulent than anything seen since the Black Death.

BACKGROUND: The Aral Sea's Vozrozhdeniie Island was the main open-air
testing ground for Soviet biological warfare weapons. Weaponized agents
included 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 virus
(Argentinian hemorrhagic fever), Machupo virus (Bolivian hemorrhagic
fever), yellow fever, Lassa fever, Japanese encephalitis and Russian
spring-summer encephalitis. The desiccation of the Aral Sea is destined to
release these deadly toxins into an environment already critically taxed in
a region unable to cope with the legacy of enviornmental destruction caused
by Soviet cotton production. Health experts maintain that once these toxins
are unleashed, it will be nearly impossible to contain them.

The Aral Sea at one time was the world's fourth largest lake, after the
Caspian Sea, Lake Victoria, and Lake Superior. It covered an area the size
of southern California, draining an immense area covering Tajikistan,
Afghanistan, northeastern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. During
the 1950s, sixty cubic kilometers of water flowed annually into the Aral
Sea. Soviet planners in Moscow had decided that Central Asia would become
the USSR's cotton plantation, and the waters of the Amu and Syr Darya
rivers were diverted to irrigation of the crop. Fifty years later
scientists estimate the Aral Sea receives only between one to five cubic
kilometers per year, where as thirty-five cubic kilometers a year are
necessary simply to stabilize the remaining shoreline.

The diversion of waters has led to a dramatic decrease in the Aral Sea's
surface area, shrinking its coverage from 26,000 kilometers in the 1960s to
about 11,000 kilometers today. On an American scale, it is equivalent to
losing both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Natural decline has been equally
precipitous. Only two species of fish are left of the more than twenty that
thrived fifty years ago. Only thirty-eight of one hundred and seventy-eight
indigenous animal species are still present. Salinity has increased 400%,
higher than that of the North Sea. The moderating effect of the Aral Sea 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.  Unfortunately, Uzbekistan cannot
wean itself from its dependence on cotton, its "white gold," which uses
huge amounts of water resources and sucks the Aral Sea dry. The country
produces over 5,000,000 tons of cotton per year, which accounts for nearly
one-third of state revenues.

IMPLICATIONS: The effects of Aral Sea desiccation on the local population
has been as, if not more, catastrophic than it has been on the environment.
Drinking water contains 7-16 times the maximum permissible level of
pollutants and pesticides. This pollutant level rises to 900 times the
acceptable levels in drainage and irrigation canals. Every pregnant woman
in the region suffers from anemia. Seventy percent of tenth grade boys have
serious morphological abnormalities in their sperm. Morbidity rates for
malignant tumors are increasing 3% each year. Life expectancy is as low as
40 years for men in some areas, while infant mortality rates reach 110 per
1000. As the sea shrinks, salinized land emerges. Today, an estimated
75,000,000 tons of toxic salts and dust each year blow off the Aral Sea"s
exposed sea bed to as far away as the Himalayas, Belarus and the Arctic
shores of the Russian Federation.

When the USSR in 1988 decided to get rid of the evidence of their Chemical
Biological Weapons program, nearly one hundred tons of anthrax spores were
loaded into steel drums, doused with bleach, and shipped to the Aral's
Vozrozdeniie Island, where the sludge was dumped into trenches and then
covered with sand. Despite slipshod Soviet efforts at eradication, anthrax
spores have survived. American scientists have been visiting the island for
the last 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%.

As the Aral Sea shrinks, Vozrozdeniie Island has grown from 200 to 2000
kilometers long. 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 five-foot deep two mile water
channel between Vozrozdeniie and the coast. Kazakh scientists believe that
if nothing is done, the island will be joined to the mainland within ten
years. Kazakhstan has already experienced outbreaks of plague in Aralsk, a
port city. But the Aral Sea toxins will not be confined to Central Asia.

CONCLUSIONS: The 4 June 2000 issue of the Australian newspaper The Age
carried a report that Osama bin Laden's associates had recently bought
anthrax and bubonic plague viruses from Kazakh arms dealers. Economic
desperation and terrorism area potent mix. Should these viral agents be
unleashed, the human and economic cost would be enormous. A 1997 report
published by the Center for Disease Control estimated that such an attack
on 100,000 people would cause tens of thousands of deaths and would cost
between US$ 477.7 million to US$ 26.2 billion. Emergency services would be
immediately overwhelmed.

It is imperative that the West immediately focus its attention on the
ecological and biological implications of the Aral Sea debacle, and help
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan resolve their problems. Otherwise, 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."

Louis Proyect
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