Tashkent - This year, Earth Day on 21 April, is dedicated to the "International Year of the Ocean". To raise awareness and stimulate discussion on the very real human and health impact of the environmental tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical team working in the region has launched a website.
The MSF team has developed a medical programme to address the major causes of morbidity and mortality (tuberculosis, acute respiratory infections, diarrhea diseases and anemia) and will provide regular updates on the Aral Sea, related health problems and first hand accounts from the region.
Since the first Earth Day more than 20 years ago, Aral Sea water levels have been falling faster than map-makers can keep up with. What was once the fifth largest inland body of water now only ranks as the tenth largest. The Aral Sea has shrunk to half its original surface area; its volume has been reduced by 75% and water levels have dropped sixteen meters. Of the original known 20 species of fish, only two are estimated to survive in small numbers. In the 1960s, over 160 tons of fish were caught a day. The last fish to reach the canning factory in Muynak (now 70 Km from the shoreline) traveled over 2,000 Km by train to get there from the Baltic Sea.
Toxic salt wind storms are common as winds whip across the now exposed sea-bed. It is estimated that over 75 million tons of toxic salts and dust are spread across Central Asia.
This is not just an environmental disaster, but a regional human disaster. Around five million people still living in the region, which includes western parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the northern part of Turkmenistan, are desperately trying to cope with the destruction of their environment, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, thirty years of natural resources mismanagement, and the impact on their health.
MSF is the world's largest private medical emergency relief organisation with over 2,000 expatriate staff and 10,000 national staff working in some 80 countries around the world, over 20 of which are in a state of war. For twenty six years, MSF has been assisting populations in danger all over the world. In the Aral Sea Area, MSF is concerned about the health of the population and their ability to cope.
MSF has been working in the Aral Sea Area since 1997, in close cooperation with local health professionals and the World Health Organization. There are nine expatriate aid workers from North America, Europe and Australia working in the Aral Sea programme. On World Earth Day, they will be working with local doctors and nurses in hospitals with limited supplies and materials. They will be trying to improve the lives of people living the epicenter of one of the biggest environmental disaster of the twentieth century.