Remote western regions of the Uzbekistan have for several days been assailed by a cataclysmic sand and salt storm.
Meteorological authorities have been cited by local media as saying that the content of sand and salt in the air in the near-Aral region has exceeded the norm by almost sixfold.
The main affected urban center is the capital of the Karakalpakstan autonomous region, Nukus, which lies around 100 kilometers from the desiccated remnants of the Aral Sea.
“It all began early in the morning, at 4 am, on May 27. We were woken up by this horrible air that made us cough. When we went outside, we were shocked. The entire ground was covered in white sand and salt. You could not see further than around 80 or 100 meters,” Alyona Aminova, a resident of Nukus, told Eurasianet.
The following day, the Hydrometeorological Service Center, which operates under the auspices of the Emergency Situations Ministry, said that they had collected samples and found alarming concentrations of contaminants in the air.
Spring this year has been very dry. Karakalpakstan and the neighboring Khorezm region have seen no rain since April 25. Strong winds have now blown up copious amounts of the dried-out salt and dust that once lay at the bottom of the Aral Sea.
Weather experts have said that a northwesterly wind was pushed through Uzbekistan by a cold front arriving from European Russia. In some areas, winds reached speeds of up to 27 meters per second.
Environmentalists like Amet Yakubov say that Karakalpakstan has not seen anything of this order for many years.
“The most dangerous thing is that this is affecting agriculture and grazing crops. If the crops die, so will the cattle. This is a core source of income for people living in the Aral area,” Yakubov said.
The suffocating spread of dust also extending deep inside neighboring Turkmenistan. Former U.S. diplomat Laura Kennedy wrote on Twitter that she was stranded inside the country because of the crippling weather conditions.
“I was stranded by this dust storm in northern Turkmenistan for a day because the congestion in the air closed the Dashoguz airport. Never experienced anything like it before — the haze is lingering and present far to the south as well,” Kennedy wrote on Twitter.
Up to the 1960s, the Aral Sea was one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water. But intensive cotton agriculture led to overuse of the tributary rivers, a process that in turn visited disastrous consequences on the region in the 1970s and 1980s, as the sea dried up. Former Uzbek fishing towns like Muynak found themselves stranded dozens of kilometers from the shore, which utterly devastated the local economy.
Large numbers of people in Karakalpakstan, which has a population of around 1.8 million, must now migrate on a regular basis to neighboring Kazakhstan in search of work.
Residents say the scale of storm has already dissipated, but the fear is that this could repeat again in future.
“We have the summer ahead of us and that is a time when we have almost no rain in Karakalpakstan,” Nukus journalist Lola Kallykhanova told Eurasianet.