Nearly three-quarters of the people of Muynak, which stands at the southern end of the sea, show signs of developing cancer, according to a study by the Institute of Clinical and Environmental Medicine in the nearby town of Nukus. Cancer of the oesophagus, in particular, has reached epidemic proportions.
One in every 10 of the remaining 2,000 people of the town are reported to be dying each year, so that the entire population could be wiped out within a generation.
The impending extinction of Muynak, which stands in what was once the fertile delta of the Amu Darya river, is just the most dramatic manifestation of an epidemic of disease and death that has hit the entire region around the southern end of the sea as it has rapidly disappeared.
In 1958 Soviet engineers began to divert most of the water of the Amu Darya, and the sea's other main river, the Syr Darya, into the Karakum Kyzylkum deserts to grow cotton and rice for export. By 1990, the Aral Sea had lost 60 per cent of its water; now it has split into three highly saline lakes.
Muynak used to be an island in the once-generous delta. By 1962, four years after the diversions began, the island had become a peninsula. By 1970 the sea had receded six miles from the former port. A decade later this had stretched to 25 miles. Now it is more than 43 miles distant across a trackless wasteland.
The shrinking of the sea has changed the local climate.There are more storms in winter and they tear across what used to be the sea-bed, scouring out salt and pesticide residues and flinging them across the entire region. The area is also blighted by radiation from the testing of nuclear bombs in the region during the Fifties and Sixties.
A health survey of the Russian republic of Kara-Kalpakskaya - whose 1.2 million population lives around the southern end of the sea - has shown that, in little more than 10 years, chronic bronchitis has increased 30- fold, kidney and liver diseases (including cancers) by up to 40-fold, and arthritic diseases have soared by 60 times.
Dr Oral Ataniyazova, director of the republic's Centre for Human Reproduction and Family Planning, who carried out the survey, thinks that most of the region's diseases are environmentally induced. She says: "We have high levels of heavy metals, salts and other toxic substances in our drinking water supplies, and the bulk of our vegetables are contaminated by pesticides such as DDT, which is still used here in great quantities."
As a result, she says; "Our people are dying like flies. Kara-Kalpakskaya has the highest levels of maternal and infant mortality in the former Soviet Union. More than 20 per cent of our young women, aged 13 to 19, have kidney diseases. Another 23 per cent suffer from thyroid dysfunctions. And many women have high levels of lead, zinc and strontium in their blood."
At Muynak, former fisherman Jasmurad Kenesbay, gazing out over what used to be the Aral Sea from a high ridge at the edge of the town, says: "As the sea dies, so does this town. Our entire economy has been destroyed, and so have our lives."Reuse content