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GROWING COTTON:
AN ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER

Uzbekistan is a small independent state in central Asia. It is a former Soviet republic north of Afganistan which borders theAral Sea along with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The Aral Sea is only called Sea by tradition. It is actually a lake, once thethe world's fourth largest fresh water lake, the levels of which have been systematically decreasing since the mid 60's. To datethe Aral Sea has lost 75% of its volume and half it's surface area.

The decline of water levels is due to the vast quantity ofwater that has been diverted to irrigate cotton crops. Along with the decrease in water, the shrinking surface area also leavesbehind 36,000km2 of exposed seabed.

This is a concern because after decades of relentless cotton production the seabed iscoated with dormant toxic pesticides many of which are long since prohibited. Now exposed, they are free to becomeairborne causing a health and environmental disaster.

Chances are at some point in your life you'll wear cotton grown in Uzbekistan as it is the world's 5th top producer of cottonproducing 1.2 million metric tons of cotton in 1999/2000. However, it is the world's second biggest exporter behind only theUS. Intensive Soviet-era farming practices included conscripting local residents to harvest crops.

People still talk about 'fulfilling the plan' as per Soviet official targets for cotton production. The water diversion and pesticide abuse is instilled in theday to day activities for the people of Uzbekistan.

The environmental consequences are staggering. International scientists have been studying the situation and calling forrehabilitation for 30 years, still it remains a little known problem in a little known part of the world.

The Aral Sea was once avibrant and diverse habitat for plants and fish, it also supported a lucrative fishing industry. Between 1960-1980 75% of thefish species disappeared. As the water levels lowered the water became saline and pesticide run off further threatened thefish habitat.

The problems worsened as the overly salted water was used on the cotton crops it made the water evaporatefaster furthering the need for water. Uzbekistan is entirely dependent on its cotton exports and intensive cotton productioncontinues despite the health effects on it's own residents. Tuberculosis, typhoid, kidney and liver disorders and respiratory illnesses are increasing steadily. Infant mortality exceeds110 per 1000 births, higher than Thailand, Mexico and the Sudan. 99% of pregnant women in northern Uzbekistan areanemic, the highest rate in the world.

A study of two kindergarten classes revealed that every child suffered from anemia andwere too weak to run and jump. It is widely accepted that the situation in and around the Aral Sea is an environmental disaster. The water levels arecontinuing to decline and the living and health conditions of the people are deteriorating.

It is impossible to speculate thefuture for this area, indeed it seems bleak. Dr Oral Ataniyazova, a gynecologist and obstetrician from Northern Uzbekistanhas witnessed the toll on the people first hand. She concludes that if nothing is done to improve the health of the environmentand of the people "we may be witnessing the end of our society as a result of human folly".

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Written by: Michelle Pothier


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