Toxic dust blamed for disease
Long ignored, the environmental damage caused by the Soviet's grandiose cotton grown scheme is now being evaluated in human terms.
MUYNAK, Uzbekistan - The people of Karakalpakstan have come to fear the dust storms that sweep across this region, whipping up grit from the sandy basin of the dried up Aral Sea and depositing it in a fine layer over their homes. For a few moments, the day is darkened, the sky turns gray and suddenly the choking dust is everywhere - scratching at eyes, grazing throats.
Over the past few years, these heavy, gusting clouds of grime have become more frequent; scientists recently named the area the dustiest place on earth. But at the root of locals' fears is not the quantity of dust, but the highly poisonous toxins it contains and the sickness and disease it brings.
Most people here believe that the dust is the main cause of the dire health problems: epidemic levels of tuberculosis, debilitating respiratory illnesses, widespread kidney problems, high infant mortality, rampant anaemia and painful intestinal ailments.
• 'Staggering disaster'
It is more than 10 years since the world first began to learn about the crisis in the Aral Sea - described by the United Nations as "the most staggering disaster of the 20th century" - but scientists still have no more than a partial understanding of the damage inflicted on the 5 million people who live near the shriveled shores of what was once the world's fourth largest lake.
In 1959, keen to boost cotton production in the dry plains of central Asia, bureaucrats in Moscow conceived a brutally ambitious scheme to irrigate huge swathes of desert land and transform them into lush plantations.
A network of unlined canals was built, water from the Aral Sea's two tributaries was diverted to the cotton fields and powerful pesticides were pumped liberally into the system. Twenty years later, the region was producing 9 million tons of cotton a year, but locals had noticed with alarm ... Читать далее