Over the last several decades, the Aral Sea, once one of the world's largest inland seas, has shrunk to almost half its size. Scientists predict that without a radical recovery plan, the prominent Central Asian water body will disappear altogether by 2010.
Early in the Soviet era, the entire region along the Amu Darya River (which includes Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) was designated for cotton production and the river was dammed to divert water for irrigation. The heavy use of pesticides and defoliants needed for this monoculture crop, as well as heavy metals from mining operations, and discharge from chemical and biological weapons factories have severely polluted the region. Today, the groundwater in the region surrounding the sea is no longer suitable for drinking and each year tons of salt from the dry seabed blow onto nearby fields, resulting in the loss of thousands of acres of farmland.
Women and children are among those most affected by the Aral Sea crisis. In 1992 Oral Ataniyazova, an obstetrician who also holds a doctorate in medical science, established Perzent, the Karakalpak Center for Reproductive Health and Environment, in order to help the women and children of Karakalpakstan, an ethnically distinct and autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. Due to the severity of the pollution in the area, it is believed that its entire population has been exposed to dangerous chemicals over extended periods of time. Public health in the region has deteriorated with the worsening ecological situation. Over the past 15 years, there has been an increase in the rates of anemia, kidney and liver diseases, allergies, tuberculosis, birth defects and reproductive pathologies.
In addition to scientific research, family planning and medical assistance, Perzent offers a wide range of educational and community programs that focus on raising public awareness about the region's environmental and health problems. Most of Ataniyazova's activities concentrate on women and how they can improve their lives, including family health and the quality of food and water. Perzent trains local groups in areas such as health and hygiene, sustainable agriculture, as well as women's and children's rights. With branches in several rural districts, Perzent has created a 50-acre organic farm, a women's clinic and a publishing house. To fully involve the local people, Perzent actively solicits ideas from communities for practical solutions to the region's problems. More than 10,000 people have been involved in the organization's activities.
Ataniyazova has worked on these issues at the national, regional and international levels. As an expert in reproductive health, she has been a key spokesperson addressing various international agencies, including the United Nations. Despite many difficulties during the past two decades, Ataniyazova has helped improve the health and status of women and children in one of the world's most dramatic ecological hot spots. Undaunted, she continues to speak out about the crisis that is destroying the lives of her patients and the future of their communities.
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