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Ecology and Uzbeki national identity are intimately tied together. The forced cultivation of cotton-a cash crop that requires large amounts of water-and the diversion of the Aral Sea’s two main feeder rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, by Soviet authorities made the resulting Aral Sea environmental disaster a major, if not predominant, national concern. The Aral Sea, which is divided in half by Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south, was at one time the fourth-largest body of landlocked water in the world. In addition to providing a steady supply of water in a relatively arid region, the Aral supported a productive and important fishing industry. Perhaps even more important for Uzbeki national identity, the Aral Sea has had an important historical significance for the Uzbekis.
Now, however, cities like Moynaq that were on the banks of the Aral in the 1960s are some 100 miles away from the shrinking sea. Since the 1960s and large-scale, seemingly deliberate Soviet diversion of water away from Central Asia, the Aral Sea has lost around 60 percent of its volume. With accelerating demands from agriculture and industry the water level drops some 11 inches a year. If current trends continue, there will be nothing left of the mighty Aral but a vast salt desert.
Aggravating the Uzbeki sense of national ecological betrayal even further was the final shelving by Soviet authorities in the 1985 of the Sibaral Project, a project that promised to divert Siberian rivers back into the Aral.
Some of the first independent Uzbeki intellectuals and dissidents against Soviet rule used the Aral Sea as a symbol of Soviet exploitation. Sagdulla Karamatov wrote the novel The Last Sand Dune in 1983 as a veiled protest against Soviet policies. The writer Mamadil Makhmudov in Today and Tomorrow called the Aral environmental crisis the result of “limitless demands, unjustice and unfairness” by central Soviet authorities and modern Russia. The poet Zulfia Mominiva in I’m Grateful for Your Lessons used the name of the Aral-ar means dignity, al means to take away-to protest the destruction of Central Asian identity and dignity for the sake of northern, centralized power. The drying of the Aral Sea was like the drying of the Uzbeki spirit under Soviet oppression. The demands for quotas of cotton and the exploitation of Uzbeki labor along with Uzbeki water caused further popular divisions with central rule and continued Russian attempts to dominate the Central Asian region.
Despite popular dissidence and national anguish, the Aral Sea continues to evaporate. The current climate of largely totalitarian rule by President Karimov has not led to any significant changes in the Aral Sea crisis. Nor does it seem likely that a weakened Russia would be willing to divert its water supplies to the independent state of Uzbekistan. In addition, Uzbekistan faces the potential for new environmental crises with the expansion of the oil and gas sector and the prospect of unsustainable industrial and urban development.
- Tom Bissell, Chasing the Sea (Pantheon Books, 2003);
- Peter Craumer, Rural and Agricultural Development in Uzbekistan (The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995);
- Arun Elhance, “Conflict and Cooperation Over Water in the Aral Sea Basin,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (v.20, 1997);
- Rusi Nasar, “Reflections on the Aral Sea Tragedy in the National Literature of Turkestan,” Central Asian Survey (v.8/1, 1989);
- Anita Sengupta, The Formation of the Uzbek NationState (Lexington Books, 2003).