The anthrax attacks in the United States during the fall of 2001 prompted the American initiative on former Soviet bio-weapons facilities. US specialists arrived on Vozrozhdenie Island under an agreement signed October 22 between the Bush Administration and Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government. That deal is similar to an $8 million agreement November 5 between the United States and Kazakhstan to clean-up an anthrax plant in Stepnogorsk. Americans and Kazakhstanis had already been working together to dismantle the plant. Now they plan to convert it quickly, perhaps to a soil-analysis center.
Soviet planners considered the Aral Sea, and the surrounding Uzbek semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, to be well suited for bio- and chemical weapons research and development, largely due to the area's isolation. The United States has long been concerned about the possibility of bio-weapons manufactured in the region falling into the wrong hands. Those concerns heightened after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Vozrozhdenie Island cleanup agreement follows a 1999 funding arrangement to close down a chemical weapons plant at Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan.
In 1998, Vozrozhdenie Island was featured in a front-page story in the New York Times. The story explained that when the facility closed, scientists buried hazardous materials in canisters, which investigators believe could still contain live anthrax spores.
The elimination of the bio- and chemical weapons threat will do little to improve the overall quality of life for residents of the Aral Sea region. The territory surrounding the sea is one of the most toxic places on earth, and the US bio-weapons clean up does not address the major sources of pollution.
The current devastation dates to the 1950s, when Soviet authorities decided to turn the deserts of Central Asia into a center of cotton production. To carry out their plan they diverted the waters of the Aral Sea's two main feeder rivers the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. The resulting increase in cotton production did little to alleviate poverty in the region. At the same time, the diversion of water caused the sea to begin shrinking, fueling the desertification of the surrounding countryside. Now, the ground in Karakalpakstan is covered with a salt crust that looks like snow.
Over the years, Vozrozhdenie Island has become less remote as the Aral Sea has shrunk. Indeed, in 2001 - for the first time - satellite pictures showed that a long-anticipated land bridge connecting the island to the mainland had formed. Two years of consecutive drought combined with a continuing political stalemate over water sharing hastened the process.
"Before, only birds could reach the island," says Yusup Kamalov, Chairman of the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya. "Now [it's] wolves, foxes, wild dogs - animals that can dig - and pick up microbes and bring them back here."
Within a generation, the area around the island may become uninhabitable. Experts say the Aral Sea - once the world's fourth largest lake - will now dry up altogether unless it gains substantial new flows of water. But this is unlikely in the current political climate. Central Asia's current leaders insist on maintaining the Soviet-era water distribution system, which is noted mainly for wasting one of Central Asia's most precious resources. Saparmyrat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's autocratic chief, reportedly once told a World Bank official that the Amu Darya "rightly" flows to the Caspian rather than the Aral.
As long as Central Asian states refuse to cooperate on water management strategies, ecologists are sure that the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea region will continue. Years of efforts by the international community to broker new interstate water sharing agreements have so far been unsuccessful. Alexander Kalashnikov, a water project management specialist at USAID in Tashkent, says his organization now focuses on national - rather than international - water reforms.
From the rooftop of his office building, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Nukus, Kamalov points to the dusty riverbed of the Amu Darya, where a Soviet-built canal cuts the water flow almost a hundred miles from the Aral. That canal is just the final link in a long chain of dams and canals extending all the way up the watercourse and crossing five countries.
"There is enough water to restore the sea," Kamalov asserts, "But Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan just take water from the Amu Darya just to have it, not to use it." In one Uzbek town, Urgench, residents gratuitously water their lawns while the sea shrinks before them. [For more information see the EurasiaNet archives]. But problems stemming from the dams are more pressing than the dams themselves. Dr. Oral Atanyazova, who runs a women's health organization in Karakalpakstan Perzet, says drought conditions have contributed to poor hygiene and health in the region. Karakalpakstan has one of the world's highest rates of infant mortality, and more than 90 percent of its women are anemic. Atanyazova cannot offer a "good prognosis for the next few years."
In that context, the work on Vozrozhdenie Island should at least remove anthrax from Karakalpakstan's immediate environment. But the sudden burst of American interest does not comfort public health professionals in the region. "You know we are all dying here," says Kamalov. "But autopsies are not performed and no one investigates the causes of death."
Beatrice Hogan, a Pew Fellow in International
Journalism, spent a month in Central Asia earlier in 2001.
Her research focused on water-use-related issues.