ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN UZBEKISTAN

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN UZBEKISTAN

The Aral Sea, half of which is in Uzbekistan, has been severely desiccated by overuse of its tributary rivers, a situation recognized as one of the world's worst environmental disasters. Enormous overdrafts on these rivers are caused by the extremely low efficiency of irrigation systems in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Without the moderating influence of the sea, winters became significantly colder and summers hotter. Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea, now connected to the shore by shrinkage of the sea, contains the lethal remains of a Soviet anthrax weapons testing laboratory, most of which lies in Uzbekistani territory. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

The shrinkage of the Aral Sea has resulted in growing concentrations of chemical pesticides and natural salts, which are then blown from the increasingly exposed lake bed and contribute to desertification and respiratory health problems. Water pollution from industrial wastes and the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides is the cause of many human health disorders. Increasing soil salination and soil contamination, caused by buried nuclear processing and agricultural chemicals, including DDT, are problems. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Drinking water quality also is a major problem, especially in the western province of Karakalpakstan, where water is not properly distributed, and sources are exposed to various types of surface and underground contamination. Inadequate sewage disposal adds to Uzbekistan's water pollution problem: only 40 percent of the population is served by sewerage systems. Some 15,000 hectares of pastureland are lost to salt and dust annually. Soil contamination is highest in agricultural areas that have been subjected to annual overdoses of fertilizers and pesticides. Uncontrolled timber cutting has endangered the few remaining stands of forest. **

The main environmental protection agency, the State Committee for Nature Protection, nominally has responsibility for a wide variety of regulatory functions. However, like most of Uzbekistan’s ministries, it is outside the small decision-making circle of President Karimov. **

Environment - international agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Wetlands. signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements. =

See Separate Articles on the Aral Sea.

Soviet Policy and Environmental Problems in Uzbekistan

Despite Uzbekistan's rich and varied natural environment, decades of environmental neglect in the Soviet Union have combined with skewed economic policies in the Soviet south to make Uzbekistan one of the gravest of the CIS's many environmental crises. The heavy use of agrochemicals, diversion of huge amounts of irrigation water from the two rivers that feed the region, and the chronic lack of water treatment plants are among the factors that have caused health and environmental problems on an enormous scale. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Soviet approach to environmental management brought decades of poor water management and lack of water or sewage treatment facilities; inordinately heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, and fertilizers in the fields; and construction of industrial enterprises without regard to human or environmental impact. Those policies present enormous environmental challenges throughout Uzbekistan.

Poor water management and heavy use of agricultural chemicals also have polluted the air. Salt and dust storms related to the Aral Sea and the spraying of pesticides and defoliants for the cotton crop have led to severe degradation of air quality in rural areas. The air is polluted in the Fergana Valley from the large number of factories there. Fergana was voted one of the 30 most polluted cities in the Soviet Union.

Water Pollution in Uzbekistan

Defoliates, pesticides and fertilizer from cotton productions have found their way into rivers, streams, lakes and ground water. Industrial pollution and mining waste has also found its way into water supplies. The Amu river is an important source of drinking water even though is contaminated with raw sewage, pesticides and fertilizer.

Large-scale use of chemicals for cotton cultivation, inefficient irrigation systems, and poor drainage systems are examples of the conditions that led to a high filtration of salinized and contaminated water back into the soil. Post-Soviet policies have become even more dangerous; in the early 1990s, the average application of chemical fertilizers and insecticides throughout the Central Asian republics was twenty to twenty-five kilograms per hectare, compared with the former average of three kilograms per hectare for the entire Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

As a result, the supply of fresh water has received further contaminants. Industrial pollutants also have damaged Uzbekistan's water. In the Amu Darya, concentrations of phenol and oil products have been measured at far above acceptable health standards. In 1989 the minister of health of the Turkmen SSR described the Amu Darya as a sewage ditch for industrial and agricultural waste substances. Experts who monitored the river in 1995 reported even further deterioration. *

Polluted Drinking Water and Poor Sewage in Uzbekistan

Drinking water quality also is a major problem, especially in the western province of Karakalpakstan, where water is not properly distributed, and sources are exposed to various types of surface and underground contamination. Inadequate sewage disposal adds to Uzbekistan's water pollution problem: only 40 percent of the population is served by sewerage systems.

Pesticides and fertilizer (DDT and butfos) have polluted drinking water. Traces have been found in the milk of lactating mothers. People who have consumed water from the Amu and Syr have had high incidence of hepatitis, typhus, tuberculosis and other diseases. "It wasn't possible to mix infant formula," one doctor said, "It made goo, like soft cheese." [Source: Library of Congress February 2007]

In the early 1990s, about 60 percent of pollution control funding went to water-related projects, but only about half of cities and about one-quarter of villages have sewers. Communal water systems do not meet health standards; much of the population lacks drinking water systems and must drink water straight from contaminated irrigation ditches, canals, or the Amu Darya itself. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

According to one report, virtually all the large underground fresh-water supplies in Uzbekistan are polluted by industrial and chemical wastes. An official in Uzbekistan's Ministry of Environment estimated that about half of the country's population lives in regions where the water is severely polluted. The government estimated in 1995 that only 230 of the country's 8,000 industrial enterprises were following pollution control standards. *

Air Pollution

Poor water management and heavy use of agricultural chemicals also have polluted the air. Salt and dust storms related to the Aral Sea and the spraying of pesticides and defoliants for the cotton crop have led to severe degradation of air quality in rural areas. The air is polluted in the Fergana Valley from the large number of factories there. Fergana was voted one of the 30 most polluted cities in the Soviet Union.

In urban areas, factories and auto emissions are a growing threat to air quality. Fewer than half of factory smokestacks in Uzbekistan are equipped with filtration devices, and none has the capacity to filter gaseous emissions. In addition, a high percentage of existing filters are defective or out of operation. Air pollution data for Tashkent, Fergana, and Olmaliq show all three cities exceeding recommended levels of nitrous dioxide and particulates. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

High levels of heavy metals such as lead, nickel, zinc, copper, mercury, and manganese have been found in Uzbekistan's atmosphere, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, waste materials, and ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy. Especially high concentrations of heavy metals have been reported in Toshkent Province and in the southern part of Uzbekistan near the Olmaliq Metallurgy Combine. In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan's industrial production, about 60 percent of the total for the Central Asian nations excluding Kazakhstan, also yielded about 60 percent of the total volume of Central Asia's emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere. Because automobiles are relatively scarce, automotive exhaust is a problem only in Tashkent and Fergana. *

Pollution and Health Problems in Uzbekistan

According to experts, the most immediate impact of the environmental situation in Uzbekistan is on the health condition of the population. Although it is difficult to establish a direct cause and effect between environmental problems and their apparent consequences, the cumulative impact of these environmental problems in Uzbekistan appears to have been devastating. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Frequently cited in Uzbekistan's press are increasing occurrences of typhoid, paratyphoid, and hepatitis from contaminated drinking water; rising rates of intestinal disease and cancers; and increased frequency of anemia, dystrophy, cholera, dysentery, and a host of other illnesses. One Russian specialist includes among the ailments "lag in physical development," especially among children. According to this observer, sixty-nine of every 100 adults in the Aral Sea region are deemed to be "incurably ill." In 1990 life expectancy for males in all of Uzbekistan was sixty-four years, and for females, seventy years. The average life span in some villages near the Aral Sea in Karakalpakstan, however, is estimated at thirty-eight years. *

Pollution is blamed for a 50 percent increase in the infant morality rate between the early 1980s and mid 1990s. In some places 1 out very 10 babies died before the age of one, one of the highest in the world. Infant mortality increased by as much as 49 percent between 1970 and 1986 to an average of 46.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 1990 the average rate of mortality before age one for the entire country was sixty-five deaths per 1,000 live births. In the mid-1990s, official data estimated the level of infant mortality in parts of Karakalpakstan — which is around the dried up parts of the Aral Sea — at 110 per 1,000 live births; unofficial estimates put the level at twice that figure. In 1992 the national maternal mortality rate was 65.3 per 100,000 live births, with considerably higher rates in some regions. *

High cancer rates, high infant morality and hepatitis have been linked directly or indirectly to the use of toxic chemical in the cotton industry.

Health, Disease and the Aral Sea

The toxic dust and salty grit from the dry lake bed carried by the dust storms is linked with increases in birth defects, typhus, cholera, gastritis, respiratory and eyes disorders, tuberculosis, childhood anemia, various kinds cancers and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Some women have as many as 10 miscarriages.

People exposed regularly to the dust have high rates of anemia, goiter, respiratory diseases, throat cancer, kidney and liver problems, and stomach and intestinal ailments. In some places 85 percent of all people have anemia. The rates of cancer of the esophagus are among the highest in the world. Children gets rickets from poor nutrition. One study found high levels of DNA damage which may be linked to the high cancer rates.

The high infant mortality rates are often linked with the high rates of anemia among women who drink water with sand and stones. which accumulates in the kidneys and causes lose of blood during urination, They don’t eat enough protein to compensate for the blood lose. As a result the women become anemic and give birth to stillborn or handicapped babies. Studies found that 40 percent of the people that live in the Aral Sea area suffer from kidney disease linked to salinization.

Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times, “ Even today, 29 per cent of local people suffer from respiratory illnesses, and 47 per cent of women of fertile age suffer from blood diseases such as anaemia. Rates of cancer, miscarriages, infant mortality, birth defects, tuberculosis, kidney and skin diseases have soared. Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “ Besides toxic levels of sodium chloride, the dust is laced with pesticides such as DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, and phosalone—all known carcinogens. The chemicals have worked their way into every level of the food chain. Today Karakalpakstan registers esophageal cancer rates 25 times as high as the world average. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a major problem, and respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and immunological disorders are widespread. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015; Martin Fletcher, The Times, June 23, 2007]

Government Environmental Policy

The main environmental protection agency, the State Committee for Nature Protection, nominally has responsibility for a wide variety of regulatory functions. However, like most of Uzbekistan’s ministries, it is outside the small decision-making circle of President Karimov. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

In Uzbekistan, civil society groups such as environmental groups are subject to strict official oversight. The establishment of the social activist Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan in 2008 exemplifies how the environmental cause can be co-opted. President Islam Karimov allocated 15 parliament seats to the group, a creation of the state, ahead of general elections. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009]

The government of Uzbekistan has acknowledged the extent of the country's environmental problems, and it has made an oral commitment to address them. But the governmental structures to deal with these problems remain confused and ill defined. Old agencies and organizations have been expanded to address these questions, and new ones have been created, resulting in a bureaucratic web of agencies with no generally understood commitment to attack environmental problems directly. Various nongovernmental and grassroots environmental organizations also have begun to form, some closely tied to the current government and others assuming an opposition stance. For example, environmental issues were prominent points in the original platform of Birlik, the first major opposition movement to emerge in Uzbekistan (see The 1980s, this ch.). By the mid-1990s, such issues had become a key concern of all opposition groups and a cause of growing concern among the population as a whole. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the first half of the 1990s, many plans were proposed to limit or discourage economic practices that damage the environment. Despite discussion of programs to require payments for resources (especially water) and to collect fines from heavy polluters, however, little has been accomplished. The obstacles are a lack of law enforcement in these areas, inconsistent government economic and environmental planning, corruption, and the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of a president who shows little tolerance of grassroots activity. +

International donors and Western assistance agencies have devised programs to transfer technology and know-how to address these problems (see International Financial Relations, this ch.). But the country's environmental problems are predominantly the result of abuse and mismanagement of natural resources promoted by political and economic priorities. Until the political will emerges to regard environmental and health problems as a threat not only to the government in power but also to the very survival of Uzbekistan, the increasingly grave environmental threat will not be addressed effectively.

Global Warming, Locusts and Oil Spills

According to one study, the countries in Central Asia and Sub-Sahara are expected to be hurt the most by global warming. Temperatures in these places could rise as much a 5 degrees C. Regional experts assert that salt and dust storms from the Aral Sea have raised the level of particulate matter in the earth's atmosphere by more than 5 percent, seriously affecting global climate change. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 123.2 million Mt (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 39. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Fergana Valley oil spill, also known as the Mingbulakoil spill, was the worst terrestrial oil spill in the history of Asia. The oil spill was caused by a blowout on March 2, 1992 at the Mingbulak oil field in the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan at well No. 5. The Crude oil released from the well burned for two months.The blowout resulted in the release of 35,000 barrels (5,600 cubic meters) to 150,000 barrels (24,000 cubic meters) per day. In total, 2,000,000 barrels (320,000 cubic meters) were collected behind emergency dykes. The oil stopped flowing by itself. A total of 285,000 tons of oil were released, and it was the fifth largest oil spill in history. The spill is considered the largest inland spill in history. [Source: Wikipedia]

Largest oil spills (millions of gallons): 1) Persian Gulf off Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (240) from terminals and tankers in 1991; 2) Gulf of Mexico off Mexico (140) from a well in 1979; 3) Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan (88) from a well in 1992; 4) Persian Gulf off Iran (80) from a well in 1983; 5) Atlantic Ocean off South Africa (78.5) from a tanker on 1983; 6) Atlantic Ocean off France (68.7) from a tanker in 1978; 7) Atlantic Ocean off Canada (43.1) from a tanker in 1988; 8) Caribbean Sea off Trinidad (42.7) from a tanker in 1979; 9) Libya, southeast of Tripoli (42) from a well in 1980; 10) Mediterranean Sea off Italy (42) from a tanker in 1991. Exxon Valdez (11) ranked 53rd. [Source: Oil Spill Intelligence Report]

Central Asia has suffers locust plagues. A huge plague destroyed 330,000 hectares in Uzbekistan in 1999. Equally devastating swarms have occurred in Kazakhstan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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