Karakalpakstan: How state negligence destroyed a nation


Jess Aitkin highlights the plight of the Karakalpak people

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Image by Arian Zwegers

By Jess Aitkin

In the northwest of Uzbekistan there sits a small desert city called Moynaq. Hidden amongst the dunes, with a population that is small relative to the rest of the depopulated Karakalpak region, means that it is often overlooked. But if you were to visit, you would notice plenty which renders Moynaq uniquely strange yet uniquely sad. Rusted shipwrecks sit half-filled with sand next to signage which displays cool seas and smiling tourists. Dams and docks with nothing in them. All hints of the town’s former purpose.

Sixty years ago it was a beach resort, and while this is perhaps the most acute case, this story is repeated across Karakalpakstan. A region that once relied on the South Aral Sea for its fishing and maritime exports is struggling to adjust to the harsh reality of the Aralkum desert that replaces it. The social and economic consequences of which sound increasingly like worrying harbingers of future climate disaster.

During the region’s time as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, alternating between self-governance and incorporation into the Uzbek Soviet Republic, it was the fish basket of Central Asia and housed a fruitful marine industry. The accompanying tourism made it a popular destination in the former Soviet Union. It took a few ecologically illiterate policies to decimate the ecosystem of this region, meaning that now three quarters of the population lists water access as their primary concern.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviet government began diverting water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, two rivers which feed the Aral Sea, in order to grow cotton and support further agricultural development in the area. This process was regulated poorly, with irrigation channels springing up with no concern for overall sustainability nor the coastal towns of Karakalpakstan which relied on Aral fisheries. Over the next few decades they saw the coast retreat and the water toxify, it filled with chemical runoff which caused a complete collapse in biodiversity.

By 1983, the fisheries in Moynaq had closed and what was once seabed sits as toxic sand; it is estimated that 43 million metric tonnes of salt and pesticides are inhaled by the region’s inhabitants every year. This has led to innumerable health issues, with the region experiencing a cancer rate 24.6 percent higher than the rest of Uzbekistan, widespread anaemia and tuberculosis, as well as exceptional infant mortality. State intervention is direly needed but seldom seen. When analysed politically, this disaster has become a morbid case study for how a state can use suffering to its own ends.

The relation between the Uzbek government and the Karakalpak people has always been somewhat tense. The region has been incorporated into several nation states throughout its history but now finds itself as part of Uzbekistan; this is despite the Karakalpak language being closer to the neighbouring Kazakh, the SSR to which the region belonged until 1932. When incorporated into Uzbekistan in the post-Soviet era after brief unrecognised independence, a constitution was created which superficially acknowledged the right of Karakalpakstan to secede if they so wished on the basis of a national referendum. But any attempt at grassroots activism towards this goal has been silenced.

Coinciding with other well-reported cases of successful independence movements, there are increases in calls for an independent or Kazakh Karakalpakstan to which the devolved legislature is unresponsive. Many critics accuse the body as nothing more than a rubber stamp for Tashkent laws. Even if the Karakalpak Parliament is truly looking out for its people, control from Tashkent is still an institutional reality.

Available water is controlled centrally which is extremely pertinent when water security is the region’s chief issue. Healthcare spending is handled in a similar way, and has decreased over the past few decades. Those in the region who can, have emigrated to Kazakhstan, Russia, or other parts of Uzbekistan, many citing environmental concerns and health issues as their motivation.

This loss of labour seems to be no issue for the central government that seems intent on using the new Aralkum desert as a proposed site for oil and natural gas exploitation. Some argue that as long as Uzbekistan can keep hold of the territory, there is little concern for the population's wellbeing.

Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, the region is not a lost cause. There have been several proposals to use new renewable technologies to provide the area with energy, as well as some suggestions for how to partially restore the Aral sea. These are not without precedent either; the diminished Northern Aral Sea would likely be much smaller today if not maintained by Kazakhstan. But there seems to be little hope of implementation, seeing as these suggestions are out of step with the Uzbek government’s fossil fuel aspirations, all while ‘solving’ the issues of the inhospitable region through forced emigration.

The actions of the Uzbek government set a worrying standard, reflecting an attitude that is becoming concerningly common when it comes to climate issues. Russia’s blasé attitude toward polar warming, influenced by the opportunities Arctic trade routes offer, demonstrates this. The Kremlin seemingly ignores the high possibility for drought and decreased food security the country over. Some states are ignoring collective climate responsibility, at the expense of their citizens but to the government’s geostrategic benefit. Reversing this trend in increasingly disunited times is an odyssean challenge, but it is necessary to face. Let Moynaq be a cautionary tale, rather than a sign of things to come.