Red Cross workers who have just returned from Uzbekistan say thousands of people in the former Soviet republic are struggling to survive because of a severe drought that is now in its second year.
The Red Cross says the worst-affected region is Karakalpakstan, which is near the Aral Sea. The huge sea once supplied fresh water to the entire region, but the sea is now dying because of years of mismanagement dating back to Soviet days.
The aid agency says Karakalpakstan, which can no longer rely on water from the Aral Sea, has been severely affected by the two years of little rain. According to one estimate, cereal production has dropped by 54 percent since last year.
The Red Cross officer for Central Asia, Susanna Soderstrom, calls the drop in food production a major catastrophe. She says up to 25 percent of children under age five have chronic malnutrition and the adults are also suffering. "All the adults have repeated diarrheal diseases from the water that they are obliged to drink," she says. "There is no safe water in this area. Most of the worst affected population does not have any livestock available. So, they have no mechanism left to receive some cash, so at least they could buy food."
Uzbekistan has had water problems for many years, ever since authorities began diverting water from its two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to irrigate the nation's cotton fields. Environmentalists believe this is a major reason for the severe depletion of the Aral Sea, because the rivers flow into the Aral.
Ms. Soderstrom says that now, much of the water that does flow into the Aral is runoff from the farms and polluted. "The water is very polluted by fertilizers, chemicals, high salinity content, and this also is weakening the population by repeated water-related diseases," she says.
The Red Cross is appealing for $400,000 to provide 20,000 people in Uzbekistan with food parcels to help them get through the winter. The humanitarian agency says it also will fund a health and water sanitation program for 150,000 people.