Culture and Water: A host of Soviet Central Asia's environmental dilemmas stem from its limited supply of water.


In Central Asia, water is in short supply. Centuries-old cultural practices contributed to a variety of ways to use this essential natural resource efficiently, but over the course of 70 years a Russian-dominated, socialist-oriented system replaced many long-standing indigenous practices in agriculture. The result has been less and less land sown to food crops, a deteriorating environment, and increasing health concerns for the various cultures that have lived in Central Asia for centuries.

The people of Central Asia are concentrated in oases and along the banks of two main river systems, the Amu Dar'ya and Syr Dar'ya, separated by vast deserts. The 17 million Uzbeks are by far the most numerous Central Asian people, followed by the Kazakhs (8.1 million), Tadzhiks (4 million), Turkmen (2.7 million), and Kirghiz (2.5 million). As a whole, the region's birth rate is high and its population rapidly growing. In the five Central Asian republics, the population has grown an average of over 3 percent per year recently, in contrast to the U.S. rate of about 7 percent.

Most of the population is rural, generally 60 percent or more. Eastern Uzbekistan in particular has grown faster than the western part of the republic, and crops that require less labor - grains, potatoes, and vegetables - are more common to the east. However, rapid population growth creates pressure to emphasize more labor-intensive crops, so cotton has been popular.

The emphasis on expanding the amount of land planted in cotton has led to questions about the loss of soil fertility through lack of proper crop rotation, sharply increasing water use, and a steady decline in the availability of food. Unfortunately, it is only part of the ecological havoc that has resulted from centuries of weakening indigenous practices for the use of water.


Irrigation has long been practiced along the banks and in the deltas of the Amu Dar'ya and SyrDar'ya. Over centuries, the slopes running down to the Zeravshan Valley and Fergana Basin were completely terraced into small, level check basins irrigated by flooding. Rows of trees usually bordered the basins, and in Uzbekistan mulberry trees are still often used for this, since silk is an important clothing fabric. The mulberries can do double duty as silkworm food and as windbreaks to keep dry summer winds from contributing to high evaporation rates.

As a field is irrigated, plants take in only some of the water. Some runs off the surface, and some leaches down through the soil to drain away. As water percolates down, the water table rises and salts concentrate near the surface. To control the amount of salt in the soil, a drainage network is needed to keep the water table at the best depth for growing plants. For this, the Uzbeks developed a system of open, shallow drains that allowed excess water and salt accumulations to run off. Until the 1950s, these water diversions consisted of temporary constructions of stone and tree branches, which were often washed away.

The temporary open drains allowed Uzbek water managers to raise and lower water level at will. When surface water resources were scarce, the drains were closed and the water table level rose just enough to provide water to crop roots. Grasses were grown in the winter and spring when their water requirements were less. A variety of crops was produced, including grains, melons, fodder crops, and clover. In addition, at least half the agricultural land was ploughed in the winter to prepare for spring planting.

After the collectivization campaign of the 1930s, mechanized agricultural contributed to destroying the Uzbek irrigation and drainage system, and a shift in government policy delayed construction of new drainage system, and a shift in government policy delayed construction of new drainage systems in the early 1950s. A Soviet biologist, V.R. Vil'yams, had suggested that crop rotation using leguminous grasses would control salinization better than drainage while also maintaining the soil's fertility. Khrushchev rejected Vil'yams's ideas and reconstruction began, but it was slow.

While irrigated agriculture has been the basic economic activity in Central Asia for thousands of years, the emphasis on cotton is relatively recent. It has only dominated agriculture since the incorporation of the Central Asian people into the Russian Empire, the imposition of central economic control from Moscow, and the building or railroad connections with central Russia. Between 1750 and 1850, for example, about 54-percent of the irrigated areas of the Bukhara oasis were sown to grain crops and only 25 percent to cotton.

Today, the stress on cotton is overwhelming. By the early 1960s, about half the sown area in Uzbekistan was in cotton, the rest divided among grains, vegetables, and fodder. By 1990, cotton was sown on about two-thirds of the agricultural lands in Uzbekistan. A recent gradual rise in the proportion of fodder crops, especially of grain crops between 1983 and 1986, may show a concern for producing food, as cotton takes land from other crops.

Nowhere in the Soviet Union is the climate better suited to growing cotton that in Soviet Central Asia. Uzbekistan dominates cotton production, producing over 60 percent of the total in the Soviet republics. Since 1984, the area devoted to cotton has held steady, with total production falling from a peak in 1981 and peracre yields falling from a 1980 and peracre yields falling from a 1980 peak. The latter decline may only be apparent, a result of the common practice of padding cotton reports by state and collective farm managers. In recent years, drying stream beds have meant that slightly more land is available for use. This new land might go unreported, while farm managers made sure it was sown to cotton: apparently higher per-acre yields would result, earning higher pay for the farms and farmers.

The state bought most cotton grown in Central Asia and exported it to textile mills around Moscow. Cotton brings in about 14,000 to 16,000 rubles an acre and contributes about 2 billion rubles annually to the national and local economies. Moreover, in 1987 the monetary return on investments in cotton was much higher than for other crops.

Nevertheless, Central Asians are debating the devotion of so much land to cotton, expressing concern for dwindling food supplies amid an ever-increasing population. There has been steady decline of food supplies, especially meat, in the markets in Tashkent because of the steady increase in the amount of lands sown to cotton rather than grain for cattle. Still, because the climate is so conducive to cotton growing, some argue that cotton for export should be emphasized. Thus, pastures in Kyrgystan are still begin converted to cotton fields at the expense of fodder for livestock. This trend must be reversed and the priority given to decreasing the amount of land sown to cotton. Furthermore, efforts to use water more efficiently, to expand crop rotation, and to combat erosion and salinization will have to be part of any plan for improvement.


Cotton is but one facet of the contentious water question in Central Asia. No issue has aroused more tension between Central Asians and the Slavic-dominated central government in Moscow than the deterioration of the Aral Sea. The sea is an inland saltwater lake with no drainage outlets, and most water resources of Soviet Central Asia are part of its drainage basin. All its water comes from the Amu Dar'ya and Syr Dar'ya rivers.

Over the past 20 years, the level of the sea has fallen faster and faster in larger part because of water withdrawals to irrigate croplands in the Amu Dar'ya and SyrDar'ya basins. At one time the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea shrank from 25,000 square miles in 1961 to 18,000 square miles in 1985, and it is projected to drop to 14,000 square miles by the year 2000. Its average depth has decreased from 17 to 13 yard's, and salinity has practically doubled to be almost as salty as ocean water.

Through the 1980s, annual withdrawals consumed almost the entire flow of the two rivers. About 60 percent of what is drawn from the rivers is lost through evaporation, transpiration from plants, and seepage from unlined canals. In addition, highly mineralized and fertilizer-and pesticide-laden water flows back into the Amu Dar'ya from irrigated fields along its upper course and may contribute to serious health problems downstream, where people rely on river water for drinking and other purposes.

The decreasing level and quality of the Aral waters has had a variety of consequences. Fishing towns that were on the banks of the sea 20 years ago ar now some 30 miles away from it. Fishing fleets are stranded, Uzbek and Kazakh fishermen unemployed. An increasing number of Central Asian farmers also find themselves out of work as the desert encroaches on lands devoted to cotton and rice.

The hardest hit area is along the lower Amu Dar'ya river in Karakalpakia. The Karakalpaks are a Turkic people related more to the Turkmen next door than to the Uzbeks within whose republic they reside. Recent migration to the towns and cities in Karakalpakia may be a result of rapidly deteriorating living conditions in the countryside, engendered by water shortages, salinization, and rising death rates associated with pollution of drinking water by salt and fertilizer and pesticide residues.

Very high birth rates among the Karakalpaks have not led to comparable population increases, indicating both low life expectancies and also migration to cities and out of the region. Although the birth rate for Karakalpaks was higher than the average for Uzbekistan in 1986, population growth was below the republic average between 1951 and 1987. The death rate in Karakalpakia was well above average in 1986.

High mortality rates during the first half of the 1980s, averaging 9 deaths per 1,000 people compared to 7 per 1,000 for the republic as a whole, possibly result from impure drinking water and blowing salt and dust. At the end of the 1980s, Central Asian infant mortality rates varied from 31 to 53 deaths per 1,000, compared to 25 per 1,000 for the Soviet Union as a whole. While a major reason may be that only half the pregnant Central Asian women see a doctor before birth, environmental factors contribute much as well.

Of all children Soviet Union dying from intestinal infections in 1988,80 percent were in Central Asia. Twice the number of Uzbek babies died from digestive tract problems and respiratory illnesses than was average for the Soviet Union. Rural infant mortality in Uzbekistan averaged over 25 percent higher than in urban communities. And the Karakalpaks suffered one of the world's highest infant mortality rates - as high as 92 deaths per 1, 000 children. Pesticides, especially herbicides to destroy weeds, are associated with birth defects. Although the number of congenital birth defects among Uzbek children was slightly below the national average in the middle 1980s, this statistic, too, is rising.


Ethnic conflict over water and other environmental issues in Central Asia involves tension among Central Asian themselves as well as with other regions. An important example is the Karakum Canal, which was constructed in the late 1950s to provide almost all the water for drinking, irrigation, and other purposes in Turkmenistan. Since then, the amount diverted by the canal from the Amu Dar'ya has increased annually. By 1981, the average annual flow diverted from the Amu Dar'ya River for discharge along the Karakum Canal was more than the entire stream flow in the upper portion of the Syr Dar'ya. The Amu Dar'ya is a larger river than the Syr Dar'ya, but this still represents a major diversion of water.

Today, many Uzbeks believe that the Turkmen must cut back their water use to save the Aral Sea. However, the Turkmen are reluctant to do so in part because of very high annual population increases among their people. There has been talk of regional cooperation among the Central Asians regarding water use, but a strong under-current of ethnic hostility remains when it comes to sharing scarce water resources.

Perhaps the independence gained by the republics and peoples of Central Asia will foster an economic and political accord among the Central Asians themselves. Surely this is a prerequisite to solving the difficult ecological problems they all face as a result of policies imposed from outside the region under Czarist and Soviet rule.

Periods of rapid change reveal clearly how cultures exploit natural resources, as anthropologist Alexander Spoehr has noted. Such was the case in Central Asia during the nineteenth-century Russian conquest, and it may be the case today as the former republics assert their independence. Exploring the contributions the region's indigenous cultures made in the past, and could still make, in managing limited local water resources would make economical and social sense.


"Irrigation in Central Asia," Central Asian Review, May 1957.

Ian M. Matley, "The Golodnaya Steppe: A Russian Irrigation Venture in Central Asia," Geographical Review, July 1970.

David R. Smith, "Growing Pollution and Health Concerns in the Lower Amu Dar'ya Basin, Uzbekistan," Soviet Geography, October 1991.

Alexander Spoehr, "Cultural Differences in the Interpretation of Natural Resources," in Ian Burton and Robert Kates, eds., Readings in Resource Management and Conservation, University of Chicago Press, 1965.


Among the environmental challenges facing the nations of the former Soviet Union, perhaps the most severe is Chernobyl's legacy in Belarus and Ukraine. This past fall, Spartan Alexandrovich Pol'skee, a geographer at the Minsk Polytechnic Institute, wrote us about the effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster on the 10 million inhabitants of what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

At Chernobyl, the largest technological catastrophe in the history of the world took place, contaminating an enormous territory with radiation. Byelorussia suffered most of all, receiving more than 70 percent of the contamination. More than 2,200,000 people live in the contaminated area, over one-fifth the population of the republic.

The total damage is as high as 82 billion rubles, more than eight times the republic's annual budget. The republic annual budget. The republic lost about one-fourth its territory to contamination. And because construction has halted at two atomic power stations, Byelorussia could face a growing energy deficit in coming years, complicating conversion to a market economy.

No country, let alone little Byelorussia, could come to terms with the Chernobyl disaster with its own strength alone. The mechanism of poisoning and its effects are so widespread that one can't say how many people are threatened or how far the danger is spread. One can only speak about decreasing its effects on the human organism and on children in particular. Meanwhile, detailed medical examinations are uncovering more spots of radiation poisoning.

About five million people live in the regions poisoned by fallout. In recent years, the affected regions have been an increased number of cases of diseases of the upper respiratory path, the digestive tract, the endocrine system, and the immune system, as well as psychological disorders, blood diseases, and numerous problems with pregnancy. The rate of birth defects has increased from 4.1 to 7.7 per 1,000 births. And it's important to remember that only 10 percent of gene mutations appear in the first generation. Most mutations show up in grandchildren and great grandchildren.

In the demographic sphere, the situation is worsening severely. From 1986 to 1989, population growth dropped from 7.4 to 4.9 per 1,000. the birth rate dropped from 17.1 to 15.0, while the death rate rose from 9.7 to 10.1.

About 200,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in Byelorussia and the Ukraine, and another 150,000 await resettlement. However, people are unprepared for resettlement. Those who had been sent to Byelorussia on assignment before the accident - doctors, teachers, and so on - easily agreed to move away, but long-term residents come to such a decision with great difficulty. Many people in the contaminated zone were compensated for their property and given housing elsewhere, yet they have begun to return. Many simply don't want to leave. The populations of such towns as Bargin, Narovlya, and Hojniki have increased. In the Braginskiy region alone, over 800 families have returned.

Sects of outcasts are forming in large numbers. These are young people - "Chernobylians" - who can find marriage partners only from within their own ranks. This reflects the nervousness, uncertainty, and psychological breakdown that quite widely affect the people of the republic, who display elements of "radiation-phobia."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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