Uzbekistan, one of the newly independent Central Asia Republics, is a landlocked nation in the center of Central Asia; it borders all four of the other ex-Soviet Central Asia States (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), as well as sharing a short border with Afghanistan. It has an area of 447,000 square kilometers (about the size of France or slightly larger than the state of California) and has a long and twisting border. From its farthermost Western point to its farthermost Eastern point, it stretches 1,425 kilometers and at its widest point is 930 kilometers from North to South.
While almost 80% of its land is desert or near desert and is fairly flat, Uzbekistan also contains the fertile Fergana Valley (a good agricultural area of about 21,440 square kilometers) and high mountains, the foothills of the Tian Shan Range, (the highest is 4,500 meters about sea level) in the Eastern part of the country. The most inhospitable land is the large Qizilqum (Red Sand) Desert in the North. Uzbekistan is situated between two large and important Central Asian Rivers: the Amu Darya which runs from the Aral Sea along its southern boundary and the Syr Darya, which reaches the Eastern part of the country after running parallel to it through neighboring Kazakhstan. These two rivers are the main water supply of both Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations and have been drastically overdrawn for irrigation purposes. A number of irrigation projects and canals funnel water into the Fergana Valley and elsewhere, increasing agricultural land and contributing to Uzbekistan’s environmental problems.
In addition to having large tracts of desert and wasteland, Uzbekistan is also situated along a major fault line and is subject to earthquakes and tremors. In 1966, for example, the capital city, Tashkent, was heavily destroyed by a major earthquake.
Uzbekistan shares a continental climate with the rest of landlocked central Asia, characterized by hot summers and cold winters. The temperature and the weather is unaffected by moderating coastal weather patterns. Summer temperatures often rise above 40 degrees Celsius while winter temperature average about -23 degrees. Much of the country is arid and little rainfall occurs even in the fertile agricultural area; irrigation is the lifeblood of agriculture.
The population of Uzbekistan is around 26 million and growing at a rapid rate as the majority of the population is young, with about half under 19 years of age. It is projected to reach 30 million by around 2010. While the majority of the population (over 60%) still lives in rural areas, the population of the capital and other cities is growing at a fast rate. Tashkent now has an estimated 2.3 million inhabitants; other large cities include Samarkand, Namangan, Andijon, and Bukhoro, which have populations of between 200,000 and 450,000 persons. Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asia Republics and, because of lack of water and of arable land, this increasing population is having a negative effect on the environment and on the economy.
About 72-75% of Uzbekistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek today and this proportion is increasing as minority groups (Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and others) relocate to other Central Asia Republics or to European Russia. However, ethnic tensions among these various groups, present during the time of Russian domination, have increased since the establishment of independence. These ethnic tensions also exist within the other Central Asia Republics, all of which have minorities of other Asian and European peoples.
Uzbekistan is also home to a small autonomous region of Karakalpakstan (about 1.5 million people) which was created in 1936 by the Soviet government as a homeland for the Karakalpaks (a Turkish Muslim group). In 1992, the region was granted republic status within independent Uzbekistan but the government maintains tight control over the area. Located near the Aral Sea, this group has been especially hard hit by that environmental crisis and Karakalpakstan is one of the poorest and most environmentally devastated parts of Uzbekistan. It also has a high birth rate (about 30 per 1,000 population) and is mostly rural with few urban centers.
Uzbekistan is a country with rich natural resources and potential for a well developed economy; however, it has severe environmental problems and a lack of infrastructure, which are hindering development of its natural resources. The economy today is one of the country’s significant problems as, at the time of independence, it was one of the least developed and industrialized of the Soviet Republics. Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources including gold, natural gas, coal and other minerals including uranium, fluorospar, copper, zinc, lead, tungsten; during the Soviet years, is was an exporter of these raw materials to the Soviet Union. As a consequence of the collapse of this integrated market, Uzbekistan mining has suffered along with the rest of the economy.
One of the country’s most valuable resources is gold; before 1992, Uabekistan produced 1/3 of all Soviet gold and the largest gold mine in the world is the Muruntau Gold Mine in the Qizilqum Desert. In 1992, an estimated 80 tons of gold were mined in Uzbekistan, making it the 8th largest gold producer in the world. Also, before 1992, Uzbekistan was the third largest producer of natural gas in the Soviet Union and gas reserves are estimated at more than 1 trillion cubic meters. Pipelines to Tajikstan, Kazakstan, and Russia are exporting increasing amounts of this gas.
In spite of this mineral and gas wealth, agriculture dominates the economy. With only about 10% of the country’s land used for agriculture, agriculture produces about 40% of the net material product and cotton is responsible for about 40% of total agricultural output. However, the heavy use of this small amount of land, dependent almost entirely upon irrigation for its water, has had great adverse effects and about 44% of the irrigated land is strongly salinated, highly eroded and otherwise unfit for agriculture. The Soviet Union developed the areas around the Aral Sea as cotton growing area; Uzbekistan was the chief cotton growing region in the Soviet Union, producing 61% of its total cotton production. It is still the 4th largest cotton producer in the world. The devastation this has caused from over irrigation and the drying up of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s most dramatic environmental disasters. In addition to cotton, which the country depends upon for much of its GDP, the farmers produce wheat, oats, corn barley and rice, fruits and vegetables (grapes and apples, potatoes and tomatoes).
Industry is still dominated by raw materials mining and processing and accounts for only 33% of the Net Material Production. Heavy industries include the extraction of natural gas and oil, oil refining, mining, machine building, steel production, chemical fertilizer, and electrical power. Light industries include the processing of cotton, wool and silk into fabric for export and food processing of dried apricots, raisins, and peaches, as well as cooking oil, wine and tobacco.
Communications outside of the major urban areas are not well developed and phone use outside of urban areas is sparse. Much of the equipment is outdated. However, the phone system is being modernized and cell phones are increasing under contracts with outside firms. 2003 estimates include just over 1,700,000 phones in use in the country. While many people have access to radio and television (with about 10 million radios and 6 million televisions in use), internet access is sparse and available only in the major cities.
The transportation infrastructure is better than that for communications. The country has good airport coverage with 33 airports with paved runways, over 3,900 kilometers of rail lines and over 71,000 kilometers of paved roads; however, there are large sections of the country which lack adequate modern transportation. In a country of few private cars, many people depend upon rail and bus transport; the national bus system is comprehensive but often the vehicles are old and lack of maintenance causes frequent breakdowns and delays.
Environmental problems are the country’s biggest challenge. Overuse of irrigation for agricultural production, the widespread cultivation of cotton to the exclusion of other crops, the large scale use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have contributed to the destruction, through salinization and contamination, of much of the agricultural land. Moreover, much of the underground fresh-water supplies are polluted by industrial and chemical wastes. Few of the industries follow pollution controls. In addition to water and soil pollution, the air in both rural and urban areas is heavily polluted. The heavy use of agricultural chemicals combined with salt and dust storms has led to very poor air quality in rural areas. In the cities, the growing number of factories with no emission controls and the increased use of automobiles have led to worsening air pollution in the capital and other cities.
In addition to these problems, Uzbekistan is home to one half of the Aral Sea and shares with Kazakhstan its environmental crisis. This was once the world’s fourth largest inland sea; however, due to diversion of the waters of the rivers which feed it: the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, to irrigate the cotton crop, the sea has shrunk in the past 30 years to one-third its 1960 volume and half of its 1960 geographical size. This drying up of the lake has caused it to become increasing salty; this has further resulted in salt and dust storms which deposit this salt, along with agricultural chemicals and dust, on crops and homes. This has led to large scale loss of plant and animal life, destruction of arable land, changed climatic conditions, and a variety of human illnesses, birth deformities, and deaths. It is estimated that salt and dust storms from the Aral Sea have affected global climate change by raising the number of particles of salt and dust in the air.
The following sites will provide further information on this disaster:
THE ARAL SEA: BACK FROM THE BRINK?
The following site contains teaching modules on this disaster:
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