Despite Uzbekistan's rich and varied natural environment, decades of environmental neglect in the Soviet Union have combined with skewed economic policies in the Soviet south to make Uzbekistan one of the gravest of the CIS's many environmental crises. The heavy use of agrochemicals, diversion of huge amounts of irrigation water from the two rivers that feed the region, and the chronic lack of water treatment plants are among the factors that have caused health and environmental problems on an enormous scale.
Environmental devastation in Uzbekistan is best exemplified by the catastrophe of the Aral Sea. Because of diversion of the Amu Darya and Syrdariya for cotton cultivation and other purposes, what once was the world's fourth largest inland sea has shrunk in the past thirty years to only about one-third of its 1960 volume and less than half its 1960 geographical size. The desiccation and salinization of the lake have caused extensive storms of salt and dust from the sea's dried bottom, wreaking havoc on the region's agriculture and ecosystems and on the population's health. Desertification has led to the large-scale loss of plant and animal life, loss of arable land, changed climatic conditions, depleted yields on the cultivated land that remains, and destruction of historical and cultural monuments. Every year, many tons of salts reportedly are carried as far as 800 kilometers away. Regional experts assert that salt and dust storms from the Aral Sea have raised the level of particulate matter in the earth's atmosphere by more than 5 percent, seriously affecting global climate change.
The Aral Sea disaster is only the most visible indicator of environmental decay, however. The Soviet approach to environmental management brought decades of poor water management and lack of water or sewage treatment facilities; inordinately heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, and fertilizers in the fields; and construction of industrial enterprises without regard to human or environmental impact. Those policies present enormous environmental challenges throughout Uzbekistan.
Large-scale use of chemicals for cotton cultivation, inefficient irrigation systems, and poor drainage systems are examples of the conditions that led to a high filtration of salinized and contaminated water back into the soil. Post-Soviet policies have become even more dangerous; in the early 1990s, the average application of chemical fertilizers and insecticides throughout the Central Asian republics was twenty to twenty-five kilograms per hectare, compared with the former average of three kilograms per hectare for the entire Soviet Union. As a result, the supply of fresh water has received further contaminants. Industrial pollutants also have damaged Uzbekistan's water. In the Amu Darya, concentrations of phenol and oil products have been measured at far above acceptable health standards. In 1989 the minister of health of the Turkmen SSR described the Amu Darya as a sewage ditch for industrial and agricultural waste substances. Experts who monitored the river in 1995 reported even further deterioration.
In the early 1990s, about 60 percent of pollution control funding went to water-related projects, but only about half of cities and about one-quarter of villages have sewers. Communal water systems do not meet health standards; much of the population lacks drinking water systems and must drink water straight from contaminated irrigation ditches, canals, or the Amu Darya itself.
According to one report, virtually all the large underground fresh-water supplies in Uzbekistan are polluted by industrial and chemical wastes. An official in Uzbekistan's Ministry of Environment estimated that about half of the country's population lives in regions where the water is severely polluted. The government estimated in 1995 that only 230 of the country's 8,000 industrial enterprises were following pollution control standards.
Poor water management and heavy use of agricultural chemicals also have polluted the air. Salt and dust storms and the spraying of pesticides and defoliants for the cotton crop have led to severe degradation of air quality in rural areas.
In urban areas, factories and auto emissions are a growing threat to air quality. Fewer than half of factory smokestacks in Uzbekistan are equipped with filtration devices, and none has the capacity to filter gaseous emissions. In addition, a high percentage of existing filters are defective or out of operation. Air pollution data for Tashkent, Farghona, and Olmaliq show all three cities exceeding recommended levels of nitrous dioxide and particulates. High levels of heavy metals such as lead, nickel, zinc, copper, mercury, and manganese have been found in Uzbekistan's atmosphere, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, waste materials, and ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy. Especially high concentrations of heavy metals have been reported in Toshkent Province and in the southern part of Uzbekistan near the Olmaliq Metallurgy Combine. In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan's industrial production, about 60 percent of the total for the Central Asian nations excluding Kazakstan, also yielded about 60 percent of the total volume of Central Asia's emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere. Because automobiles are relatively scarce, automotive exhaust is a problem only in Tashkent and Farghona.
Government Environmental Policy
The government of Uzbekistan has acknowledged the extent of the country's environmental problems, and it has made an oral commitment to address them. But the governmental structures to deal with these problems remain confused and ill defined. Old agencies and organizations have been expanded to address these questions, and new ones have been created, resulting in a bureaucratic web of agencies with no generally understood commitment to attack environmental problems directly. Various nongovernmental and grassroots environmental organizations also have begun to form, some closely tied to the current government and others assuming an opposition stance. For example, environmental issues were prominent points in the original platform of Birlik, the first major opposition movement to emerge in Uzbekistan (see The 1980s, this ch.). By the mid-1990s, such issues had become a key concern of all opposition groups and a cause of growing concern among the population as a whole.
In the first half of the 1990s, many plans were proposed to limit or discourage economic practices that damage the environment. Despite discussion of programs to require payments for resources (especially water) and to collect fines from heavy polluters, however, little has been accomplished. The obstacles are a lack of law enforcement in these areas, inconsistent government economic and environmental planning, corruption, and the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of a president who shows little tolerance of grassroots activity (see Postindependence Changes, this ch.).
International donors and Western assistance agencies have devised programs to transfer technology and know-how to address these problems (see International Financial Relations, this ch.). But the country's environmental problems are predominantly the result of abuse and mismanagement of natural resources promoted by political and economic priorities. Until the political will emerges to regard environmental and health problems as a threat not only to the government in power but also to the very survival of Uzbekistan, the increasingly grave environmental threat will not be addressed effectively.
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