These days, Kazakhstan has more to worry about than the odd British comedian. Somewhat more pressing is the overwhelming ecological and public health crisis that is (or was) the Aral Sea, which the nation shares with supposed arch-rival Uzbekistan. The Aral has been shrinking dramatically throughout much of the twentieth century -- with dire consequences. Once the world's fourth-largest lake, it's now little more than a salty, toxic puddle.
In 1918, the Soviets decided they wanted to farm the arid desert surrounding the Aral, and diverted much of its riverflow to do so. Thanks to this new irrigation, Uzbekistan became one of the world's largest producers of cotton, but they would pay a heavy price. Irrigation canals weren't waterproofed, and as much as 70% of the water was wasted or evaporated before it made it to the fields. Between 1960 and today, the Aral shrunk by nearly 80%, as the region's dependence on the Aral's water increased steadily. As the water levels dropped, the salinity of the water that remained increased, making it dangerous to drink. Miles upon miles of newly-exposed seabed were thick with salt deposits and the desiccated remnants of a century of pollutants dumped into the water, which were picked up by the wind and became toxic dust-clouds that today blow across large swaths of Central Asia. Cancer rates in the region have risen dramatically, and it's feared that many have suffered genetic damage.
As the Sea has disappeared, so have jobs, as harbor towns which once thrived on the fishing trade became dry-docks miles from the shore. What's more, in 1990s it was discovered that an abandoned Soviet army base on an island in the center of the Sea had been used as a testing- and dumping-ground for massive amounts of bio- and pathogenic weapons, include anthrax, which is now buried.
Despite all this, Uzbekistan's government denies that it has a major health crisis on its hands, and continues growing water-hungry, pollutant-laden cotton while the sea shrinks and its citizens sicken. Whistling past the graveyard? We'll let these amazing/horrific photographs tell the story, after the jump: