The Aral Sea played an important role in the development of the region's economy, its productive sectors, in ensuring
employment of the population, and in the formation of a sustainable social infrastructure. Fertile lands of the Amudarya
and Syrdarya rivers’ delta, as well as highly productive pastures provided jobs to tens of thousands of people in the
field of livestock, poultry, and growing crops.
Problems of the Aral Sea arose and took on alarming scales in the 60s of the XX century as a result of extreme regulation of the major transboundary rivers of the region - the Syrdarya and the Amudarya.
During this period, the needs of the region’s economy in water increased from 60 to 120 cubic km per year, 90%of which was used for irrigation. Thus, from 1960 to 1990, the area of the irrigated land in Central Asia increased from 4.5 million to 7.5 million hectares.
Significant population growth, the scale of urbanization and intensive development of lands, construction of large hydrotechnical and irrigation facilities on the water-streams of the Aral Sea basin, without taking into account environmental consequences, were main factors of the Aral Sea’s drying out.
In the late 1980s, as a result of the water level lowering, the Aral Sea was divided into the Big Aral Sea (on the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan) and the Northern / Small Aral Sea (on the territory of Kazakhstan). Since 2001, the Big Aral Sea has been divided into the Eastern Aral and Western Aral Sea due to further water level lowering.
Consequences of the drying out of the Aral Sea
The drying out of the Aral Sea has caused a complex set of environmental, socio-economic and demographic problems of a global nature in the Aral Sea region and resulted in the following negative consequences:
The Aral Sea served as a climate-regulating basin and used to mitigate the sharp weather fluctuations throughout the region, which had a favorable effect on the living conditions of the population, agricultural production and the ecological situation. The air masses invading the region during winter warmed up, and in summer cooled down over the sea.
Beginning from 1961, the sea level began decreasing with an increasing speed of 20 to 80-90 cm per year. Over the past 50 years, the total flow of rivers into the Aral Sea has been reduced to an average of 12.7 cubic km, or almost 4.5 times. The area of the water surface of the sea reduced 8 times, the volume of the water mass decreased by more than 13 times. The water level, from an absolute mark of 53.4 m before 1960, fell to 29 m.
Annually more than 75 million tons of dust and poisonous salts ascend from the Aral Sea. Dust trails coming up from the bottom of the Aral Sea reach 400 km in length and 40 km in width.
More than 75 percent of the total area of pastures of the Republic of Uzbekistan are located in Karakalpakstan, Navoi and Bukhara regions. Areas of degraded pastures in Karakalpakstan make up more than 83%, in the Bukhara region more than 59%, in Navoi region - more than 90%. From 1995 to 2011, pastures in the Republic of Karakalpakstan decreased by 620 thousand hectares, in Navoi region by 1,400 thousand hectares, in Bukhara region by 320 thousand hectares.
As a result of the effects of salts falling down during periods of dust storms, growth of irrigation water mineralization and increase of the groundwater levels, the quality of land resources has sharply decreased. This led to a decrease in crop yields (corn crops fell 3 times, rice 2 times, cotton 1.6 times and potatoes and vegetables 1.5-2.5 times).
According to the results of the survey conducted in August 2017 by the Institute of Social Researches in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, in some studied areas the level of salinity of lands exceeds 80.0%, and in Muynak district - 96.0%. The level of groundwater mineralization remains high (the level of groundwater is 1-2 meters per 64% of irrigated land). The half of the irrigated land has a low bonitet.
High evaporation at low levels of precipitations (90-120 mm / year) led to frequent irrigation (6-10 times) and flushing (2-4 times) on the saline soils. The highest norms of water consumption for irrigation are observed in Khorezm region, the Republic of Karakalpakstan and Bukhara region, which are almost 1.5-2 times higher than in Samarkand, Djizak and Syrdarya regions.
Currently the coverage of rare and endangered flora and fauna species, as well as unique ecosystems with the state and biosphere reserves make up only 0.93%, which does not allow their preservation. Nowadays the total area of protected natural areas in the Aral Sea region is 95.5 thousand hectares, which include the Nizhne-Amudarya biosphere reserve, the Kyzylkum reserve, and Eco-center “Jeyran”.
Noticeable trend towards increased seasonal drought is observed in Uzbekistan, which indicates the negative impact of the drying process of the Aral Sea on changes in the climatic conditions of the region.
The Aral Sea catastrophe exacerbated the continentality of the climate, intensifying the dryness and heat in summer, extending the cold and severe winters, and also led to the loss of landscape biodiversity, which included unique forms of shores, Ustyurt chinks, insular arid lowlands, foothill proluvial plains, erosion-solonchak hollows, eolian plains with massifs of ridge-cellular, hummocky, ridge-hummocky, flat, sand dunes.
The biggest threat should be specifically noted, which along with the high migration of the population due to the deterioration of living conditions caused by the Aral Sea’s drying out, might lead to catastrophic consequences associated with the irretrievable disappearance of culture, traditions, spiritual and historical heritage of the regions’ folks.
Pollution of water and a large volume of dust and salt coming up from the bottom of the dried Aral Sea play a decisive role in high rates of deceases, general and infant mortality, as well as high rates of a number of somatic diseases: anemia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disturbances, an increase in the level of respiratory diseases, blood diseases, cholelithiasis, cardiovascular and oncological diseases.
Over the last decade, the infant mortality rate in the Republic of Karakalpakstan has exceeded the same indicators for the Republic of Uzbekistan by 13%, maternal mortality by 17% on average. The death rate from tuberculosis in the Republic of Karakalpakstan remains the highest in the country (19.4 cases per 100,000 population) and almost three times higher than the average for Uzbekistan.
The incidence of acute intestinal infections in Karakalpakstan over the past decade was 188 per 100,000 population, which is 1.4 times higher than the average for the Republic of Uzbekistan. In the structure of respiratory apparatus, chronic bronchitis is 2.5-3 times higher than the average for the country.
Children are exposed to strong and rapidly negative impact, which poses a particular danger to the gene pool of the population of the Aral Sea region, and, consequently, the consequences will be irreversible. The content of dioxin in the blood of a pregnant women and the milk of nursing mothers in Karakalpakstan is 5 times higher than in Europe.
In the past, the Aral Sea was one of the richest fishing grounds in the world: the annual catch of fish in the reservoirs of the Aral Sea was 30-35 thousand tons. More than 80 percent of the inhabitants of the Aral Sea coast were engaged in the extraction, processing and transportation of fish and fish products. In particular, over a thousand people worked in the city of Muynak, where one of the largest fish canning factories operated.
In the port cities, an integrated infrastructure was created - shipyards, servicing ships, where up to 1,500 people were provided with jobs on a permanent basis. On the coast, there were children's camps and rest homes, where thousands of children and adults came to rest every year.
The loss of the fishing and transport potential of the sea resulted in non-functioning of such industries as fish processing and ship repair, tens of thousands of people became unemployed.
Sustainable agricultural development in Karakalpakstan depends mainly on the state of land and water resources. According to official estimates, half of the irrigated land is below the average, and over the past decade, agricultural land shrank by 177.1 thousand hectares. In general, the reduction of pastures and the decline in land productivity, the reduction in the area of tugai vegetation, and the drying out of lakes have caused the loss of more than 100,000 jobs in various sectors of the economy in recent years.
The results of the survey conducted by the Institute for Social Researches revealed that despite the measures taken, the economic potential of the region, in particular the one of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, was ranked last in terms of its economic potential, agricultural production, and retail commodity turnover and penultimate in terms of its production of consumer goods. Thus, the total per capita income in Karakalpakstan is 1.4 times lower than the average for Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan is ranked 12th among 14 regions of the country by volume of products and services indicators, the number of small businesses, and exports per capita, which features the level of entrepreneurship development.
All the surveyed areas are classified as territories with a relatively tense situation in the labor market. The unemployment rate in some areas reaches more than 10% (4.9% in the country), and youth unemployment averages 12.5%. The level of entrepreneurial activity remains low (lagging behind the average country indicators 1.5 times) due to unfavorable climatic conditions.
Ensuring food security in the Republic of Karakalpakstan has its own specific features related to the state of land and water resources, environmental challenges, the level of socio-economic development, access to transport, and the capacity of food markets. In general, for 60% of the households, the affordability of food products is low. In most districts, households have private backyard plots where they grow vegetables, fruits and melons and keep cattle. The products produced on household plots are mainly consumed by the households themselves and only one-tenth of it is sold.
There are problems associated with the lack of sustainable provision of electricity and fuel in the surveyed districts. The specificities of these districts require the development of alternative energy sources – solar and wind energy facilities. The rural population uses centralized natural gas, liquefied gas and fuel (coal) for heating and cooking. The Republic of Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan have seen a decrease in the centralized supply of natural gas between 2006 and 2016. In particular, throughout Republic of Karakalpakstan, it dropped from 93.1% to 69.1%.