Central Asia's Aral Sea

Ken Taylor #2

Taken from the MFA Digest, March of 1990, Director’s Report

There are times in this work when I have to stop and question some of the basic premises that we use to promote our cause. It is no secret that building an organized and activated constituency requires us to develop a sense of urgency to act. This urgency usually depends on the issue being defined as a threat that people can identify as real to them, their families or communities.

There are many issues tied to the sustainability of our food system that can be used to attract attention to the need for substantive changes. Soil erosion and groundwater contamination are familiar issues. Food safety is emerging as a major concern. Child health and nutrition, food for poor people, loss of family farms—are issues around which people in this country are called to rally in the name of sustainable agriculture.

At MFA, we have tried hard to keep our attention focused on the big picture of the food sysem. We know, for example, that there is more to the issue of hunger than simply giving surplus food to those in need. We know there is more to agriculture than growing great quantities of product. And we know there is more to securing a safe food supply than lots of governmental regulatory apparatus. But it is tough to create a sense of urgency to act by talking about the food system in general. So we talk about specific issues within the context of the food system.

But when we talk specific issues, the threats posed by those issues have a certain mushiness about them. People don’t appreciate being bombarded by “doomsday” scenarios, especially when the grocery store shelves are full and the media has declared the end of the farm crisis. The mainstream agribusiness organizations spend zillions bombarding us with soothing talk and “scientific” data, refuting the threats we have defined, delaying action and cutting into our confidence.

And so, I wonder how often we can use the threat posed to the Ogalalla aquifer by center pivot irrigation systems, or itemize the loss of topsoil in terms of tons per acre per year, or report the percentage of wells in Minnesota contaminated with atrazine, or express concern about the impact of BGH on the small dairy farm in Minnesota before we lose the issue of sustainability altogether. What we need is a real example of the relationship between agriculture, the environment, our food supply, and our health.

Glasnost has provided us with an example. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the world’s fourth largest lake. Since 1960, it has lost 40% of its area and has become so salty that 20 of its 24 native fish species have disappeared. The shoreline has retreated nearly 40 miles, leaving behind over 150,000 square miles of a nightmare salt desert—the source of huge storms which drop up to 75 tons of pesticide-contaminated salt dust on nearby areas 15 times a year. A once-thriving fishing industry has been destroyed, leaving thousands without work. The infant mortality rate is at 10 percent, four times Russia’s national rate. Throat cancer rates have soared and traces of agricultural chemicals have been found in mothers’ milk since 1975. Ninety percent of the area’s population depends upon contaminated water for drinking.

The cause of all of this? A commodity-oriented agriculture, dependent upon irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to produce cotton for export—a major earner of hard currency for Russia. It was done in the name of jobs and industrial development, a theme for justifying earth-rape that should be familiar to all of us. The result is the sacrifice of an entire ecosystem, hundreds of species gone forever, thousands of people displaced, and the possibility for those who remain reduced to virtually zero. And all of this human-inspired and engineered degradation took place within a single generation! It is hard to imagine such a collapse in so short a period of time.

And yet it could happen here. A recent report by the respected Worlwatch Institute suggests that the entire planet could reach that point in just 40 years through the combined effect of population growth, natural resource exploitation and environmental contamination. The Aral Sea tragedy gives us a clear window through which to see the powerful influence of agriculture in that scenario. This present-day reality should provide the urgency to act we all need to maintain and expand our efforts to build a sustainable future.

Editor’s Note:

So, I thought, all this is Ken’s articulation of a problem that has surely cleared itself up after 16 years. Not so. I did a little research and found that the Aral Sea area is still a huge salty desertified mess and not getting better, while the population in the area has continued to increase. New salty area of desert has continued to appear, and in year 2000 (ten years after Ken’s article) it increased by another new 42,000 square kilometers. The territory of dust and salt spread has increased to 400,000 or 450,000 square kilometers. As the water evaporates, the saltiness increases, killing fish and making the water unusable. Engineers tried to construct a crosspiece that would divide the Aral Sea into two parts, allowing a natural filling up of one part, but in 1999 the crosspiece was destroyed.

So who hears of the Aral Sea anymore? Have we grown too used to disaster? Have we replaced all news of Central Asia with news of war, oil, and various political upheavals? Where is the Aral Sea today in our thinking, our comparing, or even our prayers?

I think if Ken Taylor were alive, we might hear about it. I think I’ll remember it and try to learn more. I think sometimes it pays to analyze disaster before it strikes at home.

-- Beth Waterhouse, added on 7/24/06