Impacts to Life in the Region

Important Demographic Changes Over the Last Decades

Changes in population are important to understand the Aral Sea crisis for various reasons that we will explore. Between 1950 and 1988, the population of the Aral Sea basin grew dramatically - from 13.8 to 33.2 million people, comprising increases from 8.1 to 19.9 million in Uzbekistan, 1.0 to 2.2 million in Kirghizstan, 2.0 to 5.1 million in Tadzhikistan, 1.5 to 3.5 million in Turkmenistan, and 1.2 to 2.4 million in Kazakhstan (all within the sea-basin limits). In 1990, the population of the Aral Sea basin numbered 34 million. Mean annual rates of population increase in the late 1980s amounted to 2.85% in Uzbekistan, 2.60% in Kirghizstan, 3.2% in Tadzhikistan, 2.65% in Turkmenistan, and 1.06% in southern Kazakhstan (as compared with 0.95% in the USSR as a whole) (Kasperson 1995). Today, after two decades of intense demographic growth, the situation has clearly changed (see Figure #1), for we see that the mean of the population growth rate in the Aral Basin has diminished.

CIA Fact sheet

Children and young people occupy a significant place in the age structure, owing to the high natural increase of population. Children and teenagers up to 15 years of age comprise 42.5 per cent of the population in the Aral region (as compared with 26.8 per cent in the former USSR). Therefore, there are fewer people of working age here than in other parts of the world. (Kasperson 1995) Large variations in river water levels and large scale pollution caused the principal environmental changes of the Aral region. Although water consumption through fisheries, industry, power generation and public use of water increased, consumption in these branches taken together never exceeded 3-4 km³ per year (Figure #2), or a relatively low portion of the available water. Clearly, the development of agriculture and, more specifically, the growth of irrigation have been the main engines of environmental change (Kasperson 1995).

water resources

Demographics and Water consumption

While population has grown, so has the need for fresh water. Uzbekistan has already elaborated trading schemes of water against natural gas with Kirghistan. According to data from the World Bank, the current distribution of available water per capita is as follows:

  • Uzbekistan - 2596 m3/ per person/annually
  • Turkmenistan - 4044 m3/ per person/annually
  • Tajikistan - 1843 m3/ per person/annually
  • Kyrgyzstan - 1371 m3/ per person/annually
  • Kazakhstan - 1943 m3/ per person/annually
Water Distribution

Poverty:The Main Cause for Population Growth

The Central Asian republics enjoyed, during Soviet times, state safety nets and subsidies in order to transform the region mainly into an agricultural and oil and gas source for the Soviet Union. This transformation occurred because of the warm climate and of the labor specialization pushed forward in the region. But when those republics gained their independence in 1991, the transition from a centralized economy to a market one brought severe economic hardship for most of the population. It was followed by a liberation of prices and hyperinflation. This brought a sharp surge in poverty, as many state-provided privileges disappeared abruptly too. For instance, in Tajikistan, poverty reached up to 83% of the population at some point. As a result of that poverty, populations, birth and death rates increased dramatically. Life expectancy shrank due to worsening public health services (Amarakoon 2004-2005). Data dramatically changes when it comes to population who live near the Aral Sea. This region has the highest child mortality rate (75 children per 1000 newly born), and in the Karakalpakstan region, which is at the epicenter of the crisis, there is a high level of maternity deaths observed: about 120 women per 10,000 births. Due to increased dust storms, high concentrations of pesticides in the air, and poor quality of water, rates of diseases such as tuberculosis, infections and parasites, typhus, hepatitis and paratyphoid dramatically increased (Mahambetova 1999).

Population seen as Agrarian Labor Force

Governments in the region play a primary role in the large share of the agricultural sector in the economy, which employs an even larger share of the labor force. Aside from Kazakhstan, all Central Asian countries depend largely on the agricultural sector for their exports and thus monetary activities (CIA-WorldFactbook). Due to a lack of modernization of the agricultural sector, particularly looking at the absence of tractors, it employs a large portion of the population in order to produce in huge quantities agrarian products which include cotton (major one), rice and wheat. Governments pressure local farmers to produce a certain level of crops by buying them below the market price. This results in increasing further the reliance of farmers on a large labor force, and prevents them from mechanizing and investing in tractors. The vicious circle in place stimulates a larger family size as it rewards extra hands to work on the field. According to UNESCO-Institute of Water Education, cotton consumption is responsible for 2.6 per cent of the global water use. As a global average, 44 per cent of that water is used for cotton growth and processing not for serving the domestic market but for export. In Uzbekistan, a major cotton producer and water consumer, 41 percent of cultivated land was devoted to cotton, 32 percent to grains, 11 percent to fruits, 4 percent to vegetables, and 12 percent to other crops (Mongabay 2008).



Agriculture in Central Asia is concentrated on cultivation of cotton, cereals, rice, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, grapes, silk cocoons, caraculs and wool. Cattle breeding is also developed. Cotton is the most important natural fiber used in the textile industries worldwide. Today, cotton takes up about 40 percent of textile production, while synthetic fibers take up about 55. During the period 1997-2001, international trade in cotton products constituted 2 percent of the global merchandise trade value. The impacts of cotton production on the environment are easily visible and have different faces. On the one hand there are the effects of water depletion, on the other hand the effects on water quality. The Aral Sea is an example of the effects of water abstractions for irrigation from the Amu Darya and the Syr-Darya, the rivers which feed the Aral Sea, to grow cotton in the desert (Chapagain 2005).


Agriculture along the Amau Darya River

Cotton production has three main negative effects:

  • Consumes large amounts of water in furrow irrigation structure
  • Requires more labor force due to the lack of financial capacity of farmers
  • Pollutes water and the environment because of mixing used field water full with chemicals and fertilizers with river or drinkable underground water.

A backdrop to this swiftly deteriorating ecosystem is the struggle to retain the once ample supply of vegetation being grown in the region. The thirstiest of the crops are predictably cotton and rice. The first of which, cotton, still puts Uzbekistan as second cotton exporter in the world. With government quotas for cotton growth unabated, the toll to the environment continues to grow and ravage the region. One third of the foreign currency earned by the country is dependent on the cotton grown in the arid land of the Aral Sea region.

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With desertification of the area the poorly constructed system for irrigation has become a much more worrisome problem. The salty, sandy and dry soils that support the unlined canals now absorb much of the water intended for crops. Additionally, the water evaporates more rapidly in the drying climate and sandy earth. As little as one fifth of the water is reaching its destination while much of the water left behind en route causes widespread salty flood plains. Buildings and fields have been collapsing for decades and many miles of once resourceful farmland have become salt marsh (Percoda). “A United Nations report in 2001 estimated that 46 percent of Uzbekistan's irrigated lands have been damaged by salinity, up from 38 percent in 1982 and 42 percent in 1995” (Tavernise). Some of the remaining crop yields have diminished by as much as two thirds and on many accounts the yield has decreased by half.

Uzbekistan depends on the unused water of its neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, for fresh water. With little supply of its own the demand for water in Uzbekistan continues to grow. All of the regional soils are saturated with salt. Depending on the crop up to four times the fresh water is needed for any reasonable growth as would be needed under normal growing conditions. To decrease the salinity of the soil the croplands are flushed at least four times. This process also eliminates many of the minerals and salts that are needed for productivity of the land. To compensate for the loss of vital nutrients in the soil the people of the region utilize a severe amount of fertilizers and pesticides. Pesticide use in some areas is over twenty times the national average and the health standards of some crops exceed the allowable limits in nitrate and pesticides by two to four times (Percoda).

Causes at the origin of the decrease in productivity of agricultural plants:

  • Food and water shortage
  • Weather conditions, with springs starting later and early autumn frosts, high temperature levels, frequent and long lasting draughts
  • Population growth causes the need for rational use of water resources to increase, and for diversification of the economy from an agrarian one into one of industry and service (tourism).

The Importance of Ground Water in the Region

Groundwater is water located beneath the ground surface and lies in the spaces and small fractures of the ground. It is important to use ground water in the Aral Sea region because it diversifies the stress on available water resources. Groundwater levels help us determine the distribution of available fresh water resources suitable for domestic water supply. The Aral region and the surroundings of the Amudarya River in particular, contain groundwater which can be used as an alternative water resource while other sources such as the rivers themselves and the Sea are being depleted. Groundwater is fed by water flowing from the riverbed and irrigation canals as well as through irrigated fields, and gets filtered by dripping the different layers of soil. It can be used most easily in the South Aral Sea area, where it is located under 2-3 meters only under the surface. (Salokhiddinov-Abdulhakim 2004)

Scientists were able to observe and analyze seasonal changes in groundwater levels. High levels of underground water occur in April and at the beginning of May. Low levels start from September and keep declining until February-March, where they reach their lowest level. Clearly, these seasonal changes happen because of the intensive watering of irrigated fields. The rise in groundwater happens until September then it drops when farmers stop using as much water for irrigation and temperature starts to fall. The level of underground water then diminishes until February and March, when it becomes warmer and farmers start irrigating their fields again. Based on scientific observations, there is a positive correlation and positive feedback between high precipitation, high flow of water in rivers and a rise in underground water level. Based on scientific observations, there is a positive correlation and positive feedback between high precipitation, high flow of water in rivers and rise in underground water level. Where in "high water years" groundwater table depth rises on irrigated areas, in "low water years" its level in the Aral Sea's irrigated area drops. This helps explain fluctuation too (Salokhiddinov, Abdulhakim).

Underground water is important for eco-systems (vegetation and land subsidence) and cannot be intensively used. Therefore farmers can only use it together with surface water or in places where surface water is not reachable. It can be helpful to use it to balance consumption in the short term when there is a shortage (lower level) in surface water. It does not require substantial investment or hydro equipment in order to obtain water from the ground. Usually it is evenly distributed over territories, therefore does not require such great expenses as compared with hydraulic structures. Farmers can use small pumping motors to obtain water that they can use. Surface water can be contaminated but it is filtered by penetrating through the ground and becomes useful for irrigation and even in some instances as a drinking source for humans. Rising overall salinity can become a problem though, as it entertains a positive correlation with groundwater level and creates a feedback loop as we saw in the part on Salinity. There are plenty of examples in developed countries where governments used groundwater in smart ways. For instance, some developed countries like Germany and the Netherlands take about 50-60% of their total water consumption from underground sources.

What should be done?

  • diversification of agrarian sector to reduce the amount of water consumed and wasted
  • use more underground water and less surface water
  • implement technology such as dripping irrigation system, which is a low-consuming water system for irrigation purposes. Such system can precisely distribute water together with fertilizers through tubes, and has thus become known as 'fertigation'. The irrigation water use efficiency can thus be increased by 35–103% compared with that of furrow (traditional) irrigation (Ibragimov).

Regional Health

With mention to the Soviet Union's impact to the Aral Sea through their desire to grow cotton independently after World War II the first implication of serious repercussions is the scarcity of water. Attention must also be brought to the large quantity of pesticides and fertilizers which drained into the sea with the cotton boom which now, bound to the profuse expanse of salt, ravage the landscape and those who inhabit it. As the water supply to the Aral Sea decreased, the demand for cotton increased, and the Soviet Union responded by pouring more pesticides and fertilizers onto the land. Land in most of the surrounding areas, no matter what the crop, was saturated with dangerous levels of the chemicals needed to grow the Soviet Union's cotton. Runoff into the Aral Sea was far more than could be tolerated by a body of water with little supply of fresh water. Not only did this eliminate much chance for fish in the sea to survive, it also left polluted salt on the expanding banks.

Yet, chemicals used in agriculture are not the only problem for those who are within reach of the Aral Sea's demise.“When the waters vanished around Vozrozhdeniya Island, a Soviet germ-warfare facility for open-air testing of anthrax, plague, and smallpox in the southern Aral Sea, U.S. officials in 2000 became so worried that they sent funds and experts to clean up buried stockpiles of the remaining lethal bacteria" (Conant 2006). With drier conditions, the toxic salt rose in dust storms to further increase levels of pesticides and fertilizers in the dwindling food supply. In addition the polluted salt entered the lives of those nearby via the air. "In 2002 the U.N. estimated that winds carried 200,000 tons of salt and toxic sand every day throughout the Aral Sea region and thousands of miles beyond, sometimes reaching as far as Russia's Arctic north—a problem that still continues"(Conant 2006). ‘Everything is polluted with herbicides, metals, and salt,’ says the Aralsk regional hospital's head doctor, Arginbau Asanbaev.

Experts believe the ecological disaster has displaced more than 100,000 people and affected the health of more than 5 million people throughout the region” (Conant 2006). There has been a dramatic spike in anemia, brucellosis, bronchial asthma, typhoid—at approximately eight times the national average, and in tuberculosis. Today, the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country and acute respiratory diseases account for nearly half of all child deaths in the area (Conant 2006). Such illnesses as ischemic heart disease, respiratory, kidney illnesses and illnesses of the nervous system will keep increasing. Rising temperatures add to the worry, since the hotter weather does get, the more infectious diseases will appear due to worsening water quality and its deficiency in desert, or high salt level in some areas.

Impacts to Biodiversity

Prior to 1960 the Aral Sea's biodiversity was considered low. It supported no more than 24 species of fish, over 200 species of free-living macroinvertibrates, and 180 land animal species. With the lowering of water and the rise of salinity and toxicity none of the fish species survived. Less than 30 macroinvertibrate species survived and of the land animals that were reliant of the Aral Sea a few dozen remain. There are additional factors that have affected the diminishing native species of the Aral Sea region. With the receding shores once water locked breeding grounds of many fish species became vulnerable to land preditors. Also, with the decreasing volume of animal life in the region more salient species were introduced in an attempt to preserve the 44,000 tonne of fish per annum that the commercial fisheries of the region had procured prior to the 1960's. The newly introduced fish proved brutal competitors for the already vulnerable native species.