by Otabek Saydikaharov
Spatial inequality in a country could be because of the natural advantages of some regions comparing to others and also due to the agglomeration effects which might lead to clustering of activities. Advantage of first nature geography simply means that being close to rivers, coasts, ports, forests etc. some regions may benefit from natural endowments through specialization in certain type of activities like fishing , growing crops and forestry. A few decades ago, there were two regions in Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan and Khorezm benefiting from water endowment of Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers and of formerly one of four largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea. During the Soviet Union, Karakalpakstan and Khorezm specialilised in rice production and were one of the main rice-producing regions in the Soviet Union. After the independence those regions’ specialization did not change and they continued to be Uzbekistan’s largest rice producing regions.
However, during the Soviet Union period two main rivers which are sources of the Aral Sea, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, were channeled only to irrigation and substantially used for agriculture especially in the aim of increasing the amount of cotton and rice production. Unsustainable irrigation projects like a massive irrigation in the Kyzylkum Desert were introduced during this period, and continuing irrational use of water sources after the collapse of Soviet regime created a very serious problem - the evaporation of Aral Sea (see figure 1).
The disaster of the Aral Sea caused huge devastating economic problems especially for the local people in Karakalpakstan and Khorezm who were generating their income only depending on the endowments of the first nature geography. In rural areas of these regions majority of population depend on their farming lands for the livelihood however because of water shortages these lands adversely affected and polluted and as a consequence local economy decreased and rural population encountered economic hardship, malnutrition and illness. The drought in 1999-2001 had a severe effect on Karakalpakstan’s rice production. The agricultural land area decreased and total rice production fell from 414,000 in 1999 to175, 000 tons in 2000.
Once in Karakalpakstan tens of thousands of people were employed in fishing industry but now as a result of careless use of first nature geography this industry no longer exists causing the increase in unemployment rate and threat to poverty. According to the assessment of certain organizations the drying up of the Aral Sea has led to direct and indirect socioeconomic costs of USD 144 million in total.
Substantial amount of chemical pesticides were used in lands to increase the cotton production, and later when country faced water shortages those lands instead turned to be the source of danger. Winds then scattered the dust of chemicals to the surrounding areas causing health problems for the habitats and also damaging the agricultural deeds. According to observations, there are up to 10 major dust and salt storms occurring a year in the region and they are often between 150 and 300 km wide. In these regions, people are mostly suffering from protein and vitamin deficiencies resulting from malnutrition as well as anemia, tuberculosis, immunological problems, birth defects, children’s liver, kidney and respiratory diseases because of ecosystem contamination. The increase in levels of such various diseases has already become one of the main concerns of the government.
Due to the irrational immense use of first nature and myopic regional policy in the past, the current government encountered long term adverse impact of past experience. In order to increase the production of cotton and rice in water abundant regions so as to increase export, careless use of water resources brought huge cost to the government. The government has been looking for possible ways to recover the Aral Sea and consequently ecosystem condition of that region. One of the options was to bring water from Caspian Sea but after estimations it was found to be too costly. Since it was believed that there is no way which can totally recover the previous condition of Aral Sea regions the government let the habitats of Karakalpakstan and Khorezm to migrate to the capital and get residence permit without any difficulties. As a result of huge migration and increased demand for houses, house prices soared up in the capital which made much more difficult situation for middle class citizens to buy a house in the city.
Since first nature geography matters a lot in the process of individuals’ and firms’ decision making about locations to live or operate, each policy implemented by government should also take its importance in regional development into account. Otherwise, adverse impact might occur and cost the government considerably in the long term as happened in Uzbekistan.
Figure 1. The Shrinking of the Aral Sea: Socio-Economic Impacts