“The water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus, into the great destruction of the said river, for which it cause it falleth not into the Caspian Sea as it hath done in times past, and in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail.” Anthony Jenkinson, 1558 Sometimes I think that people of Uzbekistan with a 28 million population know less about one of the greatest catastrophe in their own country than people worldwide.…
“The water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus, into the great destruction of the said river, for which it cause it falleth not into the Caspian Sea as it hath done in times past, and in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail.”
Sometimes I think that people of Uzbekistan with a 28 million population know less about one of the greatest catastrophe in their own country than people worldwide. One of the reasons of it is the governmental propaganda of the successes in the policies towards its citizens. Another one is that the tragedy is being considered as not only the one of Uzbekistan but also of Kazakhstan, neighboring country rich of oil, and, considered as a main responsible side.
I found out about the Aral Sea ecological disaster when I became a freshman in my undergraduate studies. We had an introduction of our class and my then-future fellows introduced themselves. As myself, majority of students were from the capital city of Tashkent. The distribution among provinces represented the wealth and accessibility of the education in the most prestigious university of Uzbekistan: Tashkent, ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were in top three in representation. All of them were telling their mostly enthusiastic live stories and what inspired them to study at the University. Except for one 17 year old guy who looked much older for us: skin on his face was flabby; he had a permanent cough and was breathing very hard; he was so thin and tall that for the rest of our five year education he had been called a “Skeleton”; the manner of speaking was slow but the way of thinking was critical and, as I understood later, more realistic than ours.
The words he used to introduce himself were “Unlike many of you I’m a child of an ecological disaster. Fortunately for me I’m here, in Tashkent, given an opportunity to study and benefit to the development of my country.” First idea about him was that he was a child of war, as I am a child of war, running away from the scourges of ethnic cleansings. I thought he was a refugee and felt sorry for him; and found him as lucky as me to come to a safer Uzbekistan to build a new life. His words about benefitting “to the development of my country” were considered by me as our common goal.
Both of my thoughts were a mistake. As it came out he was from Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, a north-western part of Uzbekistan, constituting almost 36% of the whole country (160,000 square km) with a population of more than 1,5 million people (which is less than 6% of the whole population of Uzbekistan). The tragedy of his motherland was and nowadays is the ongoing shrinking of the Aral Sea. Its surface area drastically changed for over the last 50 years. His health condition illustrated the level of the diseases spread because the sea began to dry up and left behind salts, other minerals and toxins in the soil. Thousands of children didn’t see the adultery; hundreds of men and women have been suffered such diseases as cancer, respiratory problems, etc. the situation remains until today.
People of Karakalpakstan are so desperate that they don’t call anything else a home but the land of Karakalpaks. That was his message: to help his people fight huge difficulties they face because of the actions done by the policy-makers in order to develop agricultural sector of then-Uzbek SSR and nature’s irrevocability processes.
During my undergrad I wrote few papers on the Aral Sea problem, some of them were considered as a threat to the “national security” of Uzbekistan and I had been called and questioned by my dean who explained to me that my “thoughts about Aral Sea are contradicting with the reality and efforts taken by our democratic government.” To mention, one of my papers was graded with an ‘F’; my coursemate who ‘opened our eyes’ on that problem also had a conversation with Dean, who later was assigned as a Vice-rector on cultural and spiritual affairs (responsible for the brainwashing of students).
University official’s position was to convince the coursemate that ordinary people like him from Karakalpakstan have full access to whatever other citizen of Uzbekistan have, including education in the most prestigious universities like ours. In the end he was called a dramatizer and not a lucky survivor. That’s how the propaganda machine works in my country.
Evaporation of the Aral Sea (2000 – 2011). Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.