Uzbekistan – Part V – The Aral Sea

There are a couple of other things I want to talk about.

I want to talk about what the Soviet Imperium did (ecologically) to the region. And I also want to talk about the Uzbek people now … how they are trying to adjust to independence, how they feel about their government (a secular regime … basically old Communists are in the government, just under another name), and who they align themselves with (Turkey? Iran? Russia?)

So I will start with the story of the Aral Sea, in the northwest corner of Uzbekistan.


It is important to remember what Uzbekistan used to be like: a string of fertile oases, stretched along two great rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. People had been living and thriving on these river banks for thousands and thousands of years. Uzbekistan is mostly a desert country, dry, uninhabitable, yet all along there have been green and luscious spots, where people could survive.

Ryszard Kapucinski describes the contrast thus, in his book Imperium:

Central Asia is deserts and more deserts, fields of brown weathered stones, the heat from the sun above, sandstorms.

But the world of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is different. Arable fields stretch along both rivers, abundant orchards; everywhere profusions of nut trees, apple trees, fig trees, palms, pomegranates…

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, as well as of their tributaries, allowed famous cities to arise and to flourish –Bukhara and Khiva, Kokand and Samarqand. This way, too, passed the loaded-down caravans of the Silk Road, thanks to which the markets of Venice and Florence, Nice and Seville, acquired their importance and color.

Heads up: Kapuscinski has written an incredible essay, included in his book Imperium called: “Central Asia — The Destruction of the Sea”. I will quote from it extensively, because he says it all. It is a horrible story. And completely irrevocable. Nothing can be done to reverse the destructive process. It’s over.

Blame Brezhnev.

He decided to turn all of Uzbekistan into one large cotton plantation. Brezhnev wanted Uzbekistan to be a showpiece of Bolshevik ingenuity.

One of the worst and most unintelligent things about Communism is that it treats nature and the natural world as just another element of production, to be controlled, dominated, manipulated. So that is what Brezhnev set out to do in Uzbekistan: no longer would the people along the two rivers grow fruit, and figs and apples (things they could actually survive on). All of their orchards and green fields were appropriated by the Soviet state, and planted with cotton. The repercussions of this ill-thought-out move were apocalyptically disastrous. You cannot treat nature that way. It will rebel. It will punish you, harshly, for thinking that you can control things.

But Brezhnev was obsessed with the idea of Uzbekistan being turned into the Land of Cotton … a place where the Soviet system of Communism could work miracles, could transform desert nomads and oasis merchants into cotton-growers, could make the desert bloom with cotton plants. Nobody ever said, “Y’know what, Brezhnev? Let’s look at the long term … I don’t think this is such a good idea.” Nobody ever said “No” to these despots. So Brezhnev was free to move forward on this crackpot illogical scheme … (Can you tell I’m angry? He ruined the ecology in Uzbekistan, perhaps forever.)

So anyway: Uzbekistan is not a natural for cotton plantations. It’s a DESERT, for God’s sake. The people along the two great rivers lived in careful equilibrium with nature, growing things to support their communities, carefully handling the water supply, carefully monitoring how many people lived in each oasis … because oases are not meant to overflow with people. One too many camels, and suddenly your water supply dries up. Brezhnev and his Communist goons had no understanding of this, didn’t want to have any understanding of this, so blind was their faith in the Communist utopia, that they bulldozed through Uzbekistan, upending all of the orchards, all of the fields, and forced everybody to plant cotton.

Kapuscinski describes this process:

First, bulldozers were brought in from all over the Imperium. The hot metal cockroaches crawled over the sandy plains. Starting from the banks of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, the steel rams began to carve deep ditches and fissures in the sand, into which the water from the rivers was then channeled. They had to dig an endless number of these ditches (and they are still digging them now), considering that the combined length of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is 3,662 kilometers! Then along those canals, the kolkhoz workers had to plant cotton. [Kolkhoz is the name for collective farms.] At first they planted upon desert barrens, but because there was still not enough of the white fibers, the authorities ordered that arable fields, gardens, and orchards be given over to cotton. It is easy to imagine the despair and terror of peasants from whom one takes the only thing they have — the currant bush, the apricot tree, the scrap of shade. In villages, cotton was now planted right up against the cottage windows, in former flower beds, in courtyards, near fences. It was planted instead of tomatoes and onions, instead of olives and watermelons. Over these villages drowning in cotton, planes and helicopters flew, dumping on them avalanches of artificial fertilizers, clouds of poisonous pesticides. People choked, they had nothing to breathe, went blind.

The rivers Amu and Syr Darya had been doing their thing for millennia. By diverting the waters of the rivers, by imposing an artificial restriction on them, the delicate balance of the desert land changed … and it changed rapidly.


The fields of rice and wheat, the green meadows, the stands of kale and paprika, the plantations of peaches and lemons, all vanished. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, cotton grew. Its fields, its white drowsy sea, stretched for tens, hundreds of kilometers …

Grigory Reznichenko wrote a book in 1989 called The Aral Catastrophe, which is such upsetting reading that I was barely able to get through it. He elaborates:

Around 20 million people live in the countryside in Central Asia. Two-thirds work with cotton and really with nothing else besides. Farmers, gardeners, orchard keepers have all had to change profession — they are now employed as laborers on cotton plantations. Coercion and fear compel them to work with cotton. Coercion and fear, for it surely isn’t money. One earns pennies harvesting cotton. And the work is tiring and monotonous. To fulfill his daily quota, a man mustbend down ten to twelve thousand times. An atrocious, forty-degree heat [Celsius], air that stinks of virulent chemicals, aridity, and constant thirst destroy the human being, especially women and children … people pay with their health and their life for the personal well-being and power of a handful of demoralized careerists.

The “careerists” in Moscow would agree upon, beforehand, the amount of the coming cotton harvest. It was always a number which was completely unattainable. Then when the smaller harvest came in, Brezhnev and his goons would inflate the numbers and spread positive propaganda about the miracle they had worked in Uzbekistan. It is now called “the cotton mafia“. The mafia got rich off of the completely imaginary massive cotton harvests. And the people working the cotton starved, because no longer could they feed themselves with their own orchards.

But all of this is pretty much just the normal tragedy (with different details) of all of the republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Communists raped the land, enslaved the citizens, and closed the borders. This is all par for the course.

What makes the tragedy in Uzbekistan stand out is the Aral Sea, the once-beautiful and vital Aral Sea, a sea which, in a matter of 25 years, has dried up off the face of the earth, creating global ecological issues.

The Soviets never thought long-term about the environment. You want to build a highway? Hack down the forest. You want to create a city out of nothing? Bulldoze down the peasants’ wheat fields and cover them up with concrete.

So the Soviets over-taxed the Amu and Syr Darya rivers, they cut tributaries into the desert, to divert the water where they wanted it to go. And almost immediately (the balance of nature is so delicate in any desert), both ancient and great rivers began to dry up, and shrink to nothing. Amu and Syr are what feed the Aral Sea. So the drying up of the two rivers had massive consequences for the Aral Sea, which began to shrink. It shrank so rapidly that if you look at satellite photographs of the sea, from 1967 to 1997, you see it almost completely disappear. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Kapuscinski again, describing the crux of the issue:

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, instead of flowing into the Aral Sea, were, according to man’s will, sqandered along the way, spilled over fields, over unending deserts, along an immense distance of more than 3000 kilometers. For this reason, the calm and broad currents of both powerful rivers — the only source of life in this part of the world — instead of swelling and intensifying in the course of their journey (as is customary in nature), began to decline, to shrink, to get narrower and shallower, until, short of reaching the sea, they were transformed into salty, poisoned, and muddy pools, into spongy and foul-smelling ditches, into treacherous puddles of duckweed, finally sinking below ground and disappearing from view.

So the rivers shrink. Because the river shrinks, the sea disappears. And then there’s the issue with salt. Here’s some info about what the Aral Sea once was (I got this from the Aral Sea homepage):

The salt deposits rising to the surface because of the shrinking of the rivers destroyed the land, and because of all the windstorms and duststorms common to deserts, these salt deposits also ruined the atmosphere. This was exacerbated by all of the pesticides which had soaked into the land over the decades, so the pesticides are stirred up by the windstorms, and spread, ruining the air for miles and miles around.

Kapuscinski on the salt problem:

It is a known fact that a dozen or so meters below the surface of every desert lie large deposits of concentrated salt. If water is conducted to it, the salt, together with the moisture, will rise to the surface. And that is exactly what happened now in Uzbekistan. The concealed, crushed, deeply secreted salt started to move upward, to regain its liberty. The golden land of Uzbekistan, which was first cloaked in the white of cotton, was now glazed over with a lustrous crust of white salt.

But one doesn’t have to study the ground. When the wind blows, one can taste the salt on one’s lips, on one’s tongue. It stings the eyes.


The Aral Sea and its tributaries provided sustenance for 3 million people. But the fate of this sea and its two rivers also impinges on the situaion of all the inhabitants of this region, of whom there are 32 million..

The Soviet authorities have long worried about how to reverse the disaster — the destruction of the Aral Sea, the ruination of half of Central Asia. It is after all well known that the unprecedented increase in cotton cultivation has led to a tragic shortage of water, a shortage that is destroying a large part of the world (a fact which to this day continues to be concealed.

Then, of course, the USSR collapsed. Although the USSR was an ungainly bohemoth, an “evil empire”, and although this whole frigging mess was their fault in the first place, they still were the only ones aware enough of the problem to try to find solutions. Granted their “solutions” were insane: bombing glaciers in the Tienshan and Pamir mountains, so that the run-off would flood the land again (what?? I’m no environmental engineer but even I know that this would not work), or redirecting the rivers of Siberia (thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away) to come down into Uzbekistan, so that Brezhnev’s crazy dream of a Land of Cotton could be realized. This, if they had followed through with it, of course would have meant the ruination of Siberia.

But they had screwed up, and the Soviets were desperate for a solution. As crackpot as the schemes were, at least they were schemes! Once the USSR collapsed, Uzbekistan was completely abandoned. All of the Russians who knew how to do anything fled the country, leaving it in the hands of a down-trodden uneducated populace, who know nothing about anything. And so the Aral Sea has died.

Environmental groups all over the world have stepped in, to try to save the situation. But certainly it’s not the Uzbeks spearheading anything. The Soviets had enslaved them, had given them no sense of agency in their destinies, they just harvested the cotton and tried to live their lives, while the environmental disaster in their own country intensified almost on a minute to minute basis. People die much earlier there. People get weird unclassifiable diseases. People are poisoned.

It’s a lost cause.

So the Aral Sea is shrinking, and a process of “desertification” is taking place. The sands growing more and more insistent, taking over more and more acreage … the entire region drying up, and cracking shut.

Here’s a final (and terrible) image to leave you with. Kapuscinski, on his travels, visits Muynak, which was, only a couple of years ago, a fishing port on the Aral Sea. I can’t get these images out of my head:

[Muynak] now stands in the middle of the desert; the sea is 60 to 80 kilometers from here. Near the settlement, where the port once was, rusting carcasses of trawlers, cutters, barges, and other boats lie in the sand. Despite the fact that the paint is peeling and falling off, one can still make out some of the names: Estonia, Dagestan, Nahodka. The place is deserted; there is no one around …

It is a sad settlement — Muynak. It once lay in the spot where the beautiful life-giving Amu Darya flowed into the Aral Sea, an extraordinary sea in the heart of a great desert. Today, there is neither river nor sea. In the town the vegetation has withered; the dogs have died. Half the residents have left, and those who stayed have nowhere else to go. They do not work, for they are fishermen, and there are no fish. Of the Aral Sea’s 178 species of fish and frutti di mare, only 38 remain. Besides, the sea is far away; how is one to get there across the desert? If there is no strong wind, people sit on little benches, leaning against the shabby and crumbling walls of their decrepit houses. It is impossible to ascertain how they make a living; it is difficult to communicate with them about anything. They are Karakalpaks — they barely speak any Russian, and the children no longer speak Russian at all. If one smiles at the people sitting against the walls, they become even more gloomy, and the women veil their faces. Indeed, a smile does look false here, and laughter would sound like the screech of a rusty nail against glass.

Children play in the sand with a plastic bucket that’s missing a handle. Ragged, skinny, sad. I did not visit the nearest hospital, which is on the other side of the sea, but in Tashkent I was shown a film made in that hospital. For every 1000 children born, 100 die immediately. And those that survive? The doctor picks up in his hands little white skeletons, still alive, although it is difficult to tell.

Here are some pictures of Muynak … and there is the terrible sight of a fishing boat sitting in the middle of the desert.

The whole thing makes me feel hopeless and mad.

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2 Responses to Uzbekistan – Part V – The Aral Sea

  1. Natalie says:

    Hi, I’m doing some work on the Aral Sea for coursework and reading all your opinions? on it, and it has helped me understand it a lot more. It was good that I could read a peice of writing about it that had all the information together. I have been searching different sites, trying to gather all the information about it to help me write more detailed answers to the questions I was given about it. Your information and your views have made me feel a lot sadder about the situation. There is one question Id like to ask, if you’re able to answer- if the people are living under such terrible circumstances, and babies are dying, plus being born with brain damage, shortened intestines etc. why can’t they move the people into different countries or stop them from irrigating, and growing cotton? There is obviously a reason why they canot do this, but no one seems to say why. Maybe they have but I haven’t read it properly I’m not sure.
    Thank you for all the information it was very helpful, whether it was meant to be or not!
    Natalie W.

  2. Phil says:

    Brezhnev – what a nutcase !!

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