Stabilizing Climate Change? – Impressions from the Aral Sea

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Between 30 November and 11 December this year, the leaders of the world are meeting in Paris for 21st session of the COP (Conference of Parties) to the  UNFCCC, which is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Together with Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) have a special status and interest in negotiations about climate change. While SIDS are mostly threatened by a rise of water-levels due to climate change, LLDCs experience serious threats due to the melting of glaciers, their only water source. Obviously, the whole crowd of ‘stans’ is part of the latter category and Uzbekistan is together with Liechtenstein the only doubly landlocked country in the world.

While in Paris, the country representatives pledge to provide more money, commit to measurable goals etc. to manage the human-made catastrophe of climate change, there are of course also human forces that, mostly for the sake of profit, continue to work in favor of climate change, such as the Goldmining industry in Kyrgyzstan, which contaminates water resources and, together with already melting glaciers poses a threat of a flood for the country. In this post, I will address another water-related issues in Central Asia and its human origins: the Aral Sea catastrophe in Uzbekistan.

A lot has been sad and written about the Aral sea. The Aral Sea is actually the only topic which has ever brought up Central Asia during my high school years. In 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called it “one of the worst environmental disasters of the world”. A couple of years after Ban, I was there – at the former shores of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan – and wanted to write about it ever since.

We left our place in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in the North West of Uzbekistan pretty early in the morning and bargained for a taxi to Moynaq. In Nukus we were staying with a friend of ours who was working in the local museum. She told us about Karakalpakstan, which was once a prosperous and fertile place, due to its proximity to the river Amu Darya. Today it is one of the poorest regions of Uzbekistan.

On the way to Moynaq we passed by an endless row of cotton fields. It was harvesting season, so we saw people picking cotton on almost all of the fields, or resting in the little huts for lunch (more about the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan).
The landscape would have been marvelous hadn’t we known what cotton meant for the development of the region and especially the Aral Sea. And hadn’t there been a terrible dust in the air, which increased in density the closer we came to our destination. Eventually we had to close the windows of the car. I asked the driver if he knew where the clouds of dust, sand or whatever it was came from? He didn’t. He was not from Moynaq and suggested that the people were probably hunting in the desert or that something was burning. The smoke became thicker and thicker and when we left the car in Moynaq, the air smelled bad, but not smoky. Instead I was reminded of the smell of something chemical. I suspect that the smoke came from gas plants mixed with the poisonous salty dust that gets stirred up every day from the winds in the Aral Sea and spreads as far as Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. The whole day that we spent around Moynaq I felt like I had been smoking way too much at a party, my lungs feeling tortured and I did not get used to the smell. According to an article by Columbia University, the poison is composed of the beautiful mix of pesticides and fertilizers aswell as the remainders of Soviet experiments with anthrax and other chemical weapons and incubators for plague and smallpox. However, the people who live close to the Aral Sea, have been living with it while it was still their main provider and are seeing its death are dying with it aswell. The dust and poison has increased the mortality rates through mounting rates of infectuous and chronic diseases.

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Not long ago, Moynaq, today mainly a meeting point for disaster tourists, was a fisherman’s village. At the end of one of its main roads are the remains of a big factory, which still breaths the era of Soviet kolchose and mass agricultural production. But the former fish canning factory, on whose ground we went to get an impression (even though our driver was getting very nervous about us being arrested by authorities in the definitely NOT democratic country), today gives a feeling of apocalypse – with jackets of the workers and and parts of a laboratory still in the building as if left in a hurry and piles of cans for fish (together with the appropriate fish smell) in all corners.

Getting to the Aral Sea after our trip to the factory was even more intimidating. It doesn’t matter how often you’ve read about it: to see a shore to the desert was giving me shivers. There is simply no sea!
A friend had told us that the actual water is another two-day jeep ride through the desert away. What we saw instead were the remains of the formerly fourth biggest lake in the world: sand, dust and ship wrecks as far as you can see.

In fact, the Aral Sea started disappearing as early as 1960, but to a minor degree. The Soviets had started to divert water from the two major rivers (Amu Darya and Sir Darya) for irrigation of the multitude of cotton, that Uzbekistan was supposed to deliver to the Soviet five-year plan. The monoculture of cotton and the excessive use of pesticides have since led to land degradation, poisoning of the soil and the irrigation techniques for the plants which need a lot of water, excellerated the drying up of the lake. This human-made catastrophe is nowadays exacerbated through climate change, which leads to increasingly frequent droughts and less snow and ice in the winter to fill up the rivers.

And while Uzbekistan has been ‘actively involved in the preparation of a national contribution to the COP 21’ the country still grows a huge amount of cotton, which remains one of its major agricultural export products (around 16%). And while the world leaders are negotiating about degrees of climate change reduction and amendments to the Kyoto Protocol, I remember that standing at the shores of the Aral Sea made me feel like I could feel an already sealed, dystopian future. Like a Moynaq resident said in an interview to UNICEF:

“If there is no water, there is no life […] Now they are all going… Lord knows where they will go, how they will live”

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