Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?

By Alan P. Zelicoff; Michael Bellomo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
AN ILL WIND
Smallpox

The half dry, half dead Aral Sea lies in the heart of Central Asia like a shattered blue marble on a tattered brown mattress. Until the mid-twentieth century, the Aral Sea was the fifth largest inland body of water in the world, supporting vast numbers of birds, fish, and small mammals and the industry and recreation that went along with these flourishing resources. Yet after only three decades of intensive cotton farming, the shoreline has receded by several miles and the use of pesticides have turned the sea into today's drainage pool of salt and toxic chemicals.

After the Second World War, the central planners in the Soviet government made the decision to make the country self-sufficient in cotton production. Cotton is a very water-intensive crop, so massive irrigation projects were undertaken to divert millions of gallons of water from the Amu and Syr Dar'ya rivers that fed into the Aral Sea and created the improbably lush lake in the middle of the dry Asian steppe. But, by the late 1960s, it was recognized that the Aral Sea was dying. Far too much water had been diverted from the two rivers. The price for the increased cotton yields was the literal drying up of over half the sea.


HOT ZONES IN THE COLD WAR

If that wasn't bad enough, in addition to being one of the worst environmental disasters the world has yet seen, the Aral Sea was also host to the

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