The Aral Sea is a landlocked sea situated in a dry desert between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It was once the fourth largest sea in the world. Before the 1960s it contained more than 1,500 islands and its fishing industry employed 40,000 people and provided protein to the entire Soviet Union.
Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton. Every year over 1 million people, including children, are mobilised by the government and forced to work on the cotton harvest for little or even no pay under extremely tough working and living conditions.
Much of the area around the Aral Sea is dedicated to such cotton farming. In the 1960s the cotton field industry boomed. Being one of the most pesticide intensive crops in the world, these were introduced in vast quantities. As a result, a huge amounts of toxic pollutants and heavy metals ended up in the rivers and flowing back into the sea.
Cotton is also an extremely thirsty plant. The Karakum Canal was constructed in 1957 to redirect irrigation onto the farms. This led to a 80% reduction of water flowing into the Aral Sea. In 1987 the sea split in two and salinity levels increased. Biodiversity and fisheries started to collapse. By 2014 the main basin of the sea had dried up completely.
1989 & 2014
The Aralkum is now the largest desert created by humans. To make matters worse, the vast amount of pesticides and other pollutants from the cotton fields that were stored in the seabed are now exposed and causing toxic sand storms that spread beyond 500km2. Aral dust has been found in as far as Greenland. This toxic pollution has lead to an increase in cancer, kidney disease, anaemia and infant mortality.
Continue to The Ugly Truth About Cotton – Part II