Cotton and the Aral Sea

Cotton and the Aral Sea

Between about 1929 and his death in 1953, most historians now estimate that Stalin had been directly responsible for the deaths of somewhere around 20 million people. Most estimates are that between a third and half the dead perished in famines in the early 1930s. (Adam Hochschild, The Unquiet Ghost, 2003) Those famines are not blamed on the wheat industry.

An estimated 45 million people died under Mao Zedong in China between 1958 and 1962 (Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, quoted in the Independent, 17 September 2010). The rice industry is not blamed for this tragedy.

The “Dust Bowl,” was a period of severe dust storms across the prairies of the U.S. and Canada in the 1930s caused by poor agricultural practices. The Dust Bowl was both an ecological and social disaster that displaced hundreds of thousands of families and caused thousands of premature deaths. The Dust Bowl is not blamed on the wheat industry.

The Aral Sea is located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was at one time one of the largest lakes in the world. The Aral Sea is fed by two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. According to Thompson, Colombia University, 2008,, the Soviet government deliberately diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers beginning in the 1960s to irrigate the desert region around the Aral Sea. The majority of the water diverted from the rivers for agriculture was “soaked up by the desert and blatantly wasted (between 25% and 75% of it, depending on the time period). Further, cotton accounted for less than half, 41% of cultivated land; grains, including rice and wheat, accounted for 32% of cultivated land, fruit crops 11%, vegetables 4%, and other crops 12%.

And yet, those who wish to demonize, blame the Aral Sea disaster on cotton, not on Soviet mismanagement, not on an inefficient irrigation system and not on other crops.

The Aral Sea was destroyed by mismanagement innate to the Soviet agricultural system, not by the water requirements of cotton. Cotton’s detractors repeatedly cite the Aral Sea disaster because they wish to demonize rather than inform, and there is no other example they can use. In the history of world agriculture, there is not a single other example of a major ecosystem being destroyed by water use associated with cotton production.

Cotton accounts for about 3% of world agricultural water use, proportional to its share of world arable land use. Cotton is a drought-tolerant crop and is grown in arid regions because it can be grown in such conditions; regions are not arid because cotton is grown there.