THE Aral Sea is shrinking. And a health hazard is growing apace with the spreading desert. Since 1960, more than a third of the surface area of the sea - surrounded by the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - has disappeared. If nothing is done to stop the process, the Aral Sea may become just a geographic memory by the next century, some experts predict.
Experts agree that intensive irrigation combined with a change in climatic conditions is largely responsible for the drop in the sea's level.
Yet, while the causes are relatively easy to identify, finding solutions will not be so simple, especially given the tense political relations among Central Asian republics these days.
Specialists from the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) have just concluded discussions on the Aral crisis in this dusty town, about 500 miles northwest of Tashkent. UNEP is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
``This is not a time to point fingers and blame people,'' says Ashirbai Mambetkarimov, head of the Union for the Salvation of the Aral and Amu Darya, a local environmental group. ``We have to find ways to eliminate the dangers that the Aral crisis currently poses to the population.''
Those most at risk are in the Karakalpak Autonomous Region on the southern shore of the Aral. The sky there is often crystal clear with not a cloud to be seen for days on end. But on the ground, it's a different story.
Steady winds carry salt from the parched seabed all over the region, coating crops and lining lungs. Some dried-up irrigation canals are completely covered by a layer of salt, as though they've been whitewashed.
The condition is most noticeable at dusk. Driving on shoddily paved roads in the twilight, oncoming headlights appear as though they're plowing through a dense fog, but it's really just salt-filled dust.
The heavy use of pesticides and herbicides has compounded the health problems by polluting drinking water.
Cotton farms use defoliants during harvest. Cotton is the area's main crop, and the chemicals turn the vast fields into withered brown patches with protruding white blotches. Defoliation makes harvesting easier because much of it is still done by hand.
But health statistics for the region are startling. The rate of cancer of the esophagus is seven times greater than in the Soviet Union as a whole, while 80 percent of the population has some sort of blood disorder, says Charzau Abdirov, a local health official.
The Aral Sea crisis traces its roots to the late 1950s and early '60s, when Communist officials launched massive irrigation efforts to boost agricultural production. Though irrigation has been conducted in the area for centuries, the enormous undertakings destroyed the ecological balance.
All the water for the new projects came from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, rivers that are the Aral Sea's only sources. Thus, as crop yields rose, the sea's water level began to drop.
``In the 1960s, the areas under irrigation were increased 2 1/2 times,'' says Nikita Glazovsky, first deputy director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Geographic Institute. ``This had a disastrous effect on the Aral Sea.''
Other factors exacerbated the problem. A climate change caused greater evaporation, raising water salinity. In addition, large amounts of high-saline water in irrigation canals seeps into the ground, damaging soil.
As a result, the ground has become less fertile, producing lower yields and, ironically, requiring greater amounts of water.
``For much of the year there is no water flowing into the Aral Sea. It's all drained off before it gets there,'' says Philip Micklin, a professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., and a member of the UNEP delegation at the conferences.
THE area of the Aral has fallen from about 42,000 square miles in 1960 to roughly 25,000 square miles. And it could decrease to about 15,000 square miles by the year 2000, some experts predict.
The man-made changes killed off all fish that were native to the sea. Animal life also has greatly suffered, with many species disappearing from the region. ``A lack of planning on the consequences of heavy irrigation is the real cause for this disaster,'' says Ruslan Razakov, head of the Uzbekistan Water Management Center in Tashkent.
A flurry of proposals have been advanced to solve the problem. Some call for the diversion of water from the Caspian Sea to the west, or from the vast network of Siberian rivers to the north.
But simply pouring more water into the area won't solve the crisis, some experts say, adding that billions of rubles would be wasted. Before anything is done to refill the Aral Sea, steps have to be taken to stabilize the deteriorating health situation, many specialists say.
``Only after we are able to ensure the health of the people in the region can we turn to correcting the Aral problem,'' says Alla Terekhina, head of the Aral Research Center in Moscow.
``To solve the Aral problem we're going to have to solve the problems of Central Asia,'' Mr. Glazovsky of the geographic institute says. ``The development strategy of the region is a large part of the problem and we are going to have to change it.''
Righting past wrongs requires a treaty on water usage negotiated among the Central Asian republics, Glazovsky says.
``Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenyia - they all have to decide to use the water reasonably,'' he says. ``More importantly, they have to set up a mechanism to enforce the decisions that are taken.''
But getting officials in the three republics to agree on a water-use plan appears to be a nearly impossible task. Tensions between Uzbekistan and Turkmenyia over water rights to the Amu Darya are already near the breaking point.
``An armed conflict is a very real possibility between the republics if the situation keeps deteriorating at the current rate,'' environmentalist Mambetkarimov says.
If an agreement were somehow worked out, officials would still face the equally daunting task of changing public attitudes toward water conservation.
Farmers currently don't pay for the water they use. But any move to charge for water is likely to meet stiff resistance from the mostly conservative heads of local collective and state farms.
Adherents of orthodox communism still wield great power in many areas around the Aral, a place perestroika (restructuring) seems to have passed over. Signs proclaiming the virtues of the Communist system are abundant in Nukus, the capital of the Karakalpak region. ``Working people of the world: Unite!'' proclaims one slogan that casts a shadow over the main city square.
ON a broader scale, some experts link the fate of the Aral Sea to current events in Moscow, where legislators are struggling to formulate an economic reform plan.
``The Aral probably can be saved only through the transition to a market economy,'' Mambetkarimov says. ``A market economy allows for proper development and is much better suited to working out this problem than the current system.''
The many obstacles caught UNEP experts off guard.
``We didn't expect to find so many problems,'' says Jaroslav Balek, a Czech who led the UNEP delegation. ``We thought we would mainly find technological problems, but it's much worse than that.''
``The United Nations can help with technology, but it can't solve the other problems,'' Mr. Balek continues. ``The main problem for UNEP is to convince the local governments to work with us, because there are problems regarding political considerations.''
He adds that some members of the UNEP delegation were surprised by the apparent lack of initiative of the people.
``The people seem to be waiting for outside help,'' he says. ``They don't appear to be doing anything to help themselves.''
But Sergei Kluchkov, whose dust-covered face makes him look more like a coal miner than a farmer, says the impoverished people don't have the ability to change things.
``I'm scared because it's impossible to live without water,'' says Mr. Kluchkov, his gold teeth glistening as he speaks. ``But if the water comes back, this will be a golden land.''
If that is to happen, all sides will have to make compromises concerning the Aral Sea situation, experts say.
``But there is still the question: Are we already too late?'' Balek says.