Friday, March 27, 1998 Published at 14:05 GMT
The Aral Sea crisis
Ships rust away stranded many miles from the receding sea
The Aral Sea in central Asia was once one of the world's most fertile regions and the fourth largest lake on earth. But gross economic mismanagement is fast turning the area into a toxic desert.
By the year 2015 the Aral Sea could totally disappear.
The problems began when the former Soviet Union made Kazakhstan its main producer of cotton, a plant that needs a great deal of water.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has called for urgent help. It is organising a conference this week to try to save the region.
Red Cross spokesman Martin Faller said: "We think it is very important to help the people living in the Aral Sea area. They are all affected by environmental degradation. The Red Cross wants to help people to cope with their daily lives."
"The Soviet planners who fatally tapped the rivers, which fed the seas to irrigate central Asia's vast cotton fields, expected it dry up. They either did not realise the consequences the Aral's disappearance would bring or they simply did not care."
Since 1968 the level of the Aral Sea has dropped by more than 16m and in its southern half it has shrunk by 150km. The two main fishing ports are now dry, stranded tens of kilometres from the water.
The BBC correspondent said: "The human cost of this disaster is high and the areas around the Aral Sea now have the highest death and infant mortality rates out of all the former Soviet Union. Almost all pregnant women are anaemic and the catalogue of health problems goes on."