The Post-Pristine World?
In his essay titled "The Post-Pristine World?" published in the Center for Humans and Nature's latest issue of Minding Nature journal, Professor Ross Upshur provides a sobering reflection on the human health costs of climate change—specifically the connections between the gradual destruction of the Aral Sea and the inadequate response to drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis as a global pandemic in the making.
I stand in a remote area of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, on sand that was once the bed of the Aral Sea. Rusting abandoned tankers list on their sides like lost arcs. The Aral Sea is one of the major environmental disasters of the twentieth century. The region is also home to some of the highest rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the world. How these two afflictions are entwined is a question I have pondered for twenty years.
The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest body of fresh water on Earth, larger than all of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior. Geologically it is a terminal basin, fed in the north by the Syr Darya and in the south Amu-Darya rivers. The river waters originate in the Pamir Mountains high in Tajikistan. The Amu Darya flows through Uzbekistan, forming the border with Turkmenistan in the south and draining into the Aral Sea in the seaport of Moynaq. In the north the Syr Darya courses through the steppe in Khazikstan.
Karakalpakstan is home to the Karakalpaks, or “Black Hats.” In the 1950s and 1960s, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, recognizing the need for cotton production, decided to engage in extensive irrigation of the areas particularly adjacent to the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers. Uzbekistan quickly became one of the largest cotton producing areas in the world. After a few dry years in the 1970s, the volume of water that the Amu-Darya and Syr Darya rivers delivered to the Aral Sea diminished considerably. As cotton production grew in economic significance the water from the rivers increased dramatically. From 1960 to 1980 the amount of irrigated land increased from 3,000,000 hectares to 7,600,00 hectares. Irrigation techniques were primitive. Canals were unlined, resulting in massive losses of water into to the desert sands. Evaporative losses were also substantial. Consumptive withdrawals of water greatly exceeded the replacement from the rivers to the sea bed. Then the Aral Sea shore receded and the body of water has largely disappeared. Reliance on cotton monoculture resulted in extensive salinization of the soils. As crop yields diminished, the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and defoliants became excessive.
Climate change has come to the region, with hotter and drier summers and colder and longer winters. The Aral Sea fishery became extinct—all twenty-four species of fish are gone. The Amu-Darya delta has been irreparably damaged, including the destruction of the Tugay forests. There has been a catastrophic collapse of animal species in the area from 173 to 38, bird species from 319 to 168, and 19 of 21 reptile species have disappeared. The soil became heavily saline. Ground water in wells declined, and the drinking water quality has become worse.
One of the notable aspects of the Aral Sea disappearance is that a water disaster has created an airborne hazard. The particulate matter carried by air has increased, making Karakalpakstan one of the dustiest places on Earth. As the sea bed was exposed, toxic dust storms occurred, and now an estimated 43 million metric tons of salt have been dispersed by the winds, many of these laden with pesticide residues.
There is pervasive degradation of the physical environment and contamination of the food chain. High concentrations of persistent organic pollutants have been found in cord blood and breast milk. Dioxin levels in food are among the highest recorded.
The health status of the population is poor, with high rates of many chronic and communicable diseases. Psychosocial impacts are substantial. While no specific “causal link” to an environmental source has been identified, it must be admitted that research attention has not been extensive or rigorous.