Toxic dust blamed for disease
Long ignored, the environmental damage caused by the Soviet's grandiose cotton grown scheme is now being evaluated in human terms.
MUYNAK, Uzbekistan - The people of Karakalpakstan have come to fear the dust storms that sweep across this region, whipping up grit from the sandy basin of the dried up Aral Sea and depositing it in a fine layer over their homes. For a few moments, the day is darkened, the sky turns gray and suddenly the choking dust is everywhere - scratching at eyes, grazing throats.
Over the past few years, these heavy, gusting clouds of grime have become more frequent; scientists recently named the area the dustiest place on earth. But at the root of locals' fears is not the quantity of dust, but the highly poisonous toxins it contains and the sickness and disease it brings.
Most people here believe that the dust is the main cause of the dire health problems: epidemic levels of tuberculosis, debilitating respiratory illnesses, widespread kidney problems, high infant mortality, rampant anaemia and painful intestinal ailments.
• 'Staggering disaster'
It is more than 10 years since the world first began to learn about the crisis in the Aral Sea - described by the United Nations as "the most staggering disaster of the 20th century" - but scientists still have no more than a partial understanding of the damage inflicted on the 5 million people who live near the shriveled shores of what was once the world's fourth largest lake.
In 1959, keen to boost cotton production in the dry plains of central Asia, bureaucrats in Moscow conceived a brutally ambitious scheme to irrigate huge swathes of desert land and transform them into lush plantations.
A network of unlined canals was built, water from the Aral Sea's two tributaries was diverted to the cotton fields and powerful pesticides were pumped liberally into the system. Twenty years later, the region was producing 9 million tons of cotton a year, but locals had noticed with alarm that the sea was shrinking.
With only a trickle of water coming in, the sea retreated rapidly, and what remained of it became saltier and poisonous, killing most of its fish and much of the wildlife on its shores. As the sea shrank to half its former size, a sandy area about as big as the Netherlands was exposed, baking and cracking in the sun.
"When I was a child I used to swim in the sea. Now it isn't there. It's like a fairytale in reverse," said Almagun Matnazarova, a former schoolteacher from the onetime port town of Muynak, who scratches out a living selling socks and vests at a stall in the bazaar. At the town's outskirts, the deserted beaches where she used to play now edge onto the cracked scrubland that is the former seabed. Rusting trawlers are marooned in the sand. The coast is almost 100 miles away.
• Aid agencies arrive
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, international aid agencies hurried to the region - now divided between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan - but almost all of them focused on the environmental fallout from the catastrophe: the collapse of the eco-system, the damage to local flora and fauna, the effect on the region's environment.
Just as they had been ignored by the Soviet planners of the 1950s, the people were largely forgotten about by environmental workers. It is only now, with concern mounting over the fate of those left stranded by the desiccated seabed, that serious research into the health impact of the worst manmade environmental disaster is beginning.
Joost van der Meyer, a research director with Doctors Without Borders, which is championing the need for a greater focus on the people of the region, said: "The health and social consequences of the disaster remain a blank spot on everybody's map. It was seen primarily as an environmental issue, so no one bothered looking at the people. The impact on the local population is still not well known."
His researchers have started to study the dust to establish whether it really is one of the causes of the widespread ill health. Every year, the wind is estimated to whip up some 150,000 tons of particles that were shown to contain a variety of organophosphates and organo-chlorines, old- fashioned pesticides long-since discarded on safety grounds. These pesticides have been detected in the milk of breast-feeding women in the area and are believed to slow down children's mental development.
Half of the children who die in the Karalpakstan area of Uzbekistan (the region that surrounds the former coastline) are killed by respiratory diseases -asthma, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia - an extraordinarily high ratio, probably increased by the irritating effect of the dust.
• Breathing problems
Over the 30 years in her job, Ibadullayeva Sarakdin, head of the children's ward in Muynak hospital, has witnessed the children's increasing breathing problems. "About 60 percent of them suffer from some kind of bronchial problems. Often we don't have the medicine to treat them."
Most of the deaths are caused by late hospitalization. Parents are often reluctant to bring their children in until they are critically ill. "Although the treatment is free, they have to pay for the food here - many can't afford to," she said wearily.
Drinking water at least four times saltier than that in the West is also causing an array of complaints from kidney disease to heart problems.
But the gravest threat to health is posed by the total collapse of the economy and the ensuing chronic poverty. Muynak once had a profitable fish canning industry as well as a thriving tourist business. Now it has bankrupt fish processing plants, bankrupt hotels and bankrupt building companies. Even the local cinema has closed.
Unemployment is high, and few can afford to feed themselves properly. The explosion of TB cases is caused by this poverty, as is the anaemia that affects more than 70 percent of women, and around 99 percent of pregnant women, draining their energy and precipitating complications at birth.
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