Uzbekistan (2)

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One further remarkable feature of Uzbekistan is that you have to bargain also on official entrance tickets for museums – which we discovered by coincidence, when we walked off somewhat annoyed from a man who wanted to let us pay 5.5 dollars for passing through a gate – after which he suddenly cut down his price by half. So at most mosques and medressas, you first have to walk off upset a few times, before they come with a normal price. Or buy off a policeman – already feasible for 1 dollar.

The country is teeming with policemen who try to keep an eye on you in all kinds of manners. This is mainly apparent from the many check points along the way. Standing there are policemen bored to death (I would call them sad, but I’m sure they wouldn’t approve of that) who, from under their eyebrows that are frowned from importance, can barely hide their joy of seeing anyone, and look at you with a glance of regret when they give back your passport and the van continues its way over the endless desert plain.

Uzbekistan is a country full of fine culture and nice people. But unfortunately, Uzbekistan is also the cause and at the same time, the victim of one of the greatest ecological disasters on earth: the disappearance of the Aral Sea, once the second largest lake in the world. Uzbekistan has perfect conditions for growing cotton - at least, with regard to soil and temperature. There is hardly any rain falling. Therefore, the water has to come from 2 rivers that feed the Aral Sea from the Pamir: the Syr Darja and the Amu Darja. For a long time, the amount of water used for irrigation and the amount that reached the Aral Sea used to be in balance. This balance was violently disturbed when the Soviet regime decided to expand the growing of cotton, or “white gold”, using water soaking desert lands and open irrigation systems, from which the river water evaporates for the most part. This leaves salty and sometimes even infertile lands, with sometimes salt concentrations of over 500 times those of the North Sea. These days, water hardly (or not at all) reaches the Aral Sea anymore. The consequences are disastrous: in no more than 40 years, the surface has decreased by 2/3 due to evaporation, and the volume is reduced to only 20 % of the original. The water level has declined with more than 20 metres, leaving behind enormous salt plains on which any life is hardly possible. The salt and pesticide content in the remaining water has become so high, that hardly any fish species has survived. Not only for plants and animals the consequences are massive: also humans directly experience the costs. Due tot the withdrawal of the coast line, fishing towns have become located at distances of up to 100 km from the water, and have been deprived of their source of income. These villages are largely abandoned; rusty ships in the middle of a desert full of shells, broken down fish transfer places, and empty bazaars are the silent remainders of a more glorious past. And unfortunately, this is not all the story: the disappearance of the water has led to climate changes: summers are hooter and drier, winters colder. A strongly increased number of sand storms blow salt, pesticides and chemicals from the bare sea bottom to villages and fields. An enormous increase in the number of serious health disorders such as cancer, typhus and hepatitis are a consequence of this. The child mortality rates in this region are the highest of all former Soviet republics.

It is a very sad story, I know, and unfortunately I cannot make a happy end to it. The amount of irrigated areas is still increasing (although the total harvest decreases because of the continuing saltening of most lands); in the future, even less water will reach the Aral Sea – which has been given up for long: it will eventually cease. The only hope for stopping further degradation of the fields is the implementation of more efficient and less destructive methods of irrigation. But this requires a lot of money – which is not exactly abound in Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea, something to realize, is for me the saddest thing I ever saw.

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