The World's Water Woes: Pollution, Population and Waste Are Creating Dangerous Water Scarcities throughout the Globe

Article excerpt

Like many environmental disasters, "this one came in on cat's feet," says Abdisatar Ospanov as he gazes across a scorched, salt-pan wasteland, putting a hand over his brow to shield his eyes from the noonday sun. The table-flat land is encrusted from horizon to horizon with white, toxic salts. Were it not for the oppressive heat, hitting 40 [degrees] C (104 [degrees] F), the salt crust could be mistaken for light snowfall.

Still energetic at 56, Ospanov is a sort of local hero around Kazalinsk, a town in central Asia's Kazakhstan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union. He is Kazalinsk's historian, folk singer, writer and philosopher. Most recently, he has become an activist seeking to protect the community from a massive ecological wrong.

The desertlike expanse in which he is standing used to be the rich delta of the Syr Darya River, home to myriad species of fish and fowl and a region of productive tugai forests - wetlands characterized by small dense shrubs and trees reminiscent of California's chaparral. Not far from here, the river emptied its life-giving waters into the Aral Sea, until recently the world's fourth-largest lake.

When Ospanov was young, the river and the sea provided the lifeblood of his community and many other towns. "The word Kazalinsk means `place of fish death'," explains Ospanov. "In the old days, we used to trap tons of fish in our wetlands and in the river itself, using traps made from reeds. So the name was appropriate. Now, it sounds like a bad joke."

A similarly bad joke has been played on the Aral Sea. In Ospanov's childhood, towns such as Aralsk, on the northernmost point of the Aral, were bustling seaports. Today, the sea lies beyond the horizon of Aralsk, and the trawlers and cargo vessels that once mastered its waters sit high and dry, rusting away on the former seabed.

River and lake began shrinking in the 1960s as Soviet engineers and hydrologists began siphoning off vast amounts of water to feed thirsty cotton fields in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. No matter that the region's poor soils needed massive amounts of irrigation and tons of chemical fertilizers in order to produce crops. The Communist government's five-year plans, which out-lined productivity levels for industry and agriculture, had to be met regardless of environmental costs.

"We didn't notice the change much at first, except that there was less water in the river," Ospanov says. "We knew about the water diversions, but we didn't have any idea how those decisions, made in Moscow, would change our lives forever."

By 1990, the Aral Sea had lost two-thirds of its volume, and what remained of the Syr Darya at Kazalinsk resembled a polluted canal. Now, in most years, the river disappears into the desert west of town, 120 kilometers (72 mi.) from where it used to join the Aral Sea.

As the river died, so too did its vital wetlands and lakes. Between 1960 and 1990, nearly 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of tugai wetlands were converted into desert. The river's fish have died off, too. Little remains alive in the Syr Darya as it passes through Kazalinsk. By the time the water reaches here, it has been thoroughly used and abused by farms and cities to the east, poisoned with agricultural chemicals, untreated sewage and salts pulled from the soil by haphazard irrigation systems.

The people of Kazalinsk still use the river, despite its health hazards. They have no other source of water for drinking, household use and irrigation of vegetable gardens and small plots of cropland. Residents blame the water for a variety of physical ills. Infant mortality is high in the region - some 50 to 60 deaths per thousand live births, compared to 7 in northern Europe and 8 in the United States. Intestinal and stomach disorders are epidemic. Throughout the entire Aral Sea Basin - nearly 700,000 square kilometers (270,270 sq. mi.) - the misuse of water has crippled the land. …