The Aral Sea is “one of the worst environmental disasters in the world,” according to Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General. On a recent visit to Central Asia, Ban visited what is left of the Aral Sea, and flew over the basin to see for himself the arid salt flats left behind by the receding waters. The U.N. Secretary General suggested regional leaders need to cooperate solve the crisis.
The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, has been disappearing since the 1960s, when planners from the former Soviet Union began siphoning water to grow cotton in what is now Uzbekistan. Now 70 percent smaller, the Aral Sea is incredibly salty, containing six grams of salt per liter–three times the safe limit for human consumption. No plants or crops can grow in such salty water. As the evaporation continues, the remnants of agricultural and industrial pollution are left behind.
When the wind blows in Uzbekistan, a mixture of dust, salt, sand, and chemical pesticides threatens the health of plants, animals, and humans. Because the dust clouds are filled with contaminants like heavy metals and DDT, villagers say everyone is ill. Many people have respiratory diseases, and the surrounding areas have the world’s highest instances of tuberculosis. In some places, infant mortality is higher, and people are developing liver and kidney diseases.
While news outlets like Reuters, UPI, and the Huffington Post have reported on Ban’s April visit and the environmental devastation, none went into detail about the real cause of the disaster: cotton farming.
Let us first say that we don’t have a problem with cotton. It is a global staple, and a vital commodity. Even so, cotton is an extremely thirsty crop, requiring over 700 gallons of water to grow enough cotton for a single shirt. And while growing cotton is necessary, in times of increasing water scarcity it is difficult to justify cotton farms in the middle of a desert.
It’s also important to keep in mind that after the Aral Sea began to dry up, the Soviets had to use more and more chemicals and fertilizers to grow the cotton. These additional chemicals have been left behind as the waters have receded, and in the span of 40 years, a former fishing and resort town has turned to a desolate village full of sick children.
Unfortunately, those errors aren’t limited to the former Soviet Union. Here in the United States, we are growing cotton in the deserts of California, Texas, and Arizona. It might seem strange that a nation would grow such a thirsty crop as cotton in the middle of a desert. However, these states represent the main cotton growing regions in the U.S., and all three states have suffered major droughts in the last five years.
The world will continue to grow cotton, and we will most likely continue to do so in these water-scarce regions. However, the lesson we should take away from the Aral Sea is that water resources can and do disappear. This “environmental disaster,” as Ban calls it, is not an beyond our control, rather the result of deliberate actions. Without discussing the causes of a disappearing lake, how can we prevent the same thing from happening in someplace like, say, Lake Mead?