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The Aral Sea

The great Blue Sea ot Central Asia... occupies but a small portion of its former extent. It fills a shallow depression which is drying up with astonishing rapidity... large parts ot it have dried up since the Russians took possession of its shores... Former rivers and channels, the main arteries ot prosperous regions, have now disappeared." The 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from which this passage is taken, tells also of shells found two hundred feet above the then sea level.

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook

The Aral Sea straddles the border between western Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan. It’s fed by the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya Rivers, flowing down from the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. Back in the 1950s these rivers brought an average 55 cubic km of water a year to the Aral Sea, which stretched 400km from end to end and 280km from side to side, and covered 66,900 sq km. The sea had, by all accounts, lovely clear water, pristine beaches, plenty of fish to support a big fishing industry in the ports of Moynaq and Aralsk, and even passenger ferries crossing it from north to south.

Then the USSR’s central planners decided to boost cotton production in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, to feed a leap forward in the Soviet textile industry. But the thirsty new cotton fields, many of them on poorer desert soils and fed by long, unlined canals open to the sun, required much more water per hectare than the old ones. The irrigated area grew by only about 20% between 1960 and 1980, but the annual water take from the rivers doubled from 45 to 90 cubic km. By the 1980s the annual flow into the Aral Sea was less than a tenth of the 1950s supply.

Production of cotton rose, but the Aral Sea sank. Between 1966 and 1993 its level fell by more than 16m and its eastern and southern shores receded by up to 80km. In 1987 the Aral divided into a smaller northern sea and a larger southern one, each fed, sometimes, by one of the rivers. The two main fishing ports, Aralsk (Kazakhstan) in the north and Moynaq (Uzbekistan) in the south, were left high and dry when efforts to keep their navigation channels open were abandoned in the early 1980s. Of the 60,000 people who used to live off the Aral fishing industry (harvesting 20,000 tons of fish a year), almost all are gone. These days the rusting hulks of beached fishing boats lie scattered dozens of kilometres from the nearest water.

There are hardly any fish left in the Aral Sea: the last of its 20-odd indigenous species disappeared in about 1985, wiped out by the loss of spawning and feeding grounds, rising salt levels and, very likely, residues of pesticides, fertilisers and defoliants used on the cotton fields, which found their way into the sea. For years only introduced species such as the Black Sea flounder remained in the briny water, though recently a dozen freshwater species have begun to return to the northern sea via the Syr-Darya.

The Aral Sea’s shrinkage has devastated the land around it. The climate around the lake has changed: the air is drier, winters are colder and longer, and summers are hotter. The average number of rainless days has risen from 30 to 35 in the 1950s to between 120 and 150 today. Salt, sand and dust from the exposed bed is blown hundreds of kilometres in big salt-dust sandstorms, which also pick up residues of the chemicals from cultivated land. Locals talk of a new Akkum (White Sands) desert forming an unholy trinity with the Kyzylkum (Red Sands) and Karakum (Black Sands) deserts. A visit to anywhere near the sea is a ride into a nightmare of blighted towns, blighted land and blighted people.

In human terms, the worst-affected areas are those to the Aral Sea’s south – as far as northern Turkmenistan – and east. (The areas north and west of the Aral Sea are very sparsely populated.) The catalogue of health problems is awful: salt and dust are blamed for respiratory illnesses and cancers of the throat and oesophagus; poor drinking water has been implicated in high rates of typhoid, paratyphoid, hepatitis and dysentery; and the area has the highest mortality and infant mortality rates in the former USSR, as well as high rates of birth deformities. In Aralsk, tuberculosis is common. Humans are not the only ones affected by the disaster. Of the 173 animal species that used to live around the Aral Sea, only 38 survive.

Especially devastating has been the degradation of the big Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya deltas, with their diverse flora and fauna. The deltas have supported irrigated agriculture for many centuries, along with hunting, fishing, and harvesting of reeds for building and papermaking. The dense tugai forests, unique to the valleys of these desert rivers, have shrunk to a fifth of their old size, causing a catastrophic drop in the once-abundant water bird population.

The local name for the Aral is the Aral Tenghiz, or Sea of Islands. Barsakelmes (Place of No Return) Island, a nature reserve protecting the saiga antelope, goitred gazelle and the rare kulan or Asiatic wild ass, is no longer an island and has reportedly become an unviable habitat because it is now so arid. Nor can matters have been helped by the use of Vozrozhdenie Ostrov (ironically translating as Rebirth Island) as a Soviet biological warfare testing site (anthrax and plague were both released at the Aralsk-7 site) until it was abandoned in 1992. In 2002 the ‘island’s’ secrets were joined to the mainland by the exposed seabed.

Catching a glimpse of the notorious Aral Sea’s new southern shoreline holds no small amount of appeal for adventurous travellers. The favoured route these days is straight north from Moynaq. It’s essential to go with an experienced driver with intimate knowledge of the tracks heading north from Moynaq and Kungrad.

The disappearance of the Aral Sea within a generation ranks as perhaps the greatest man-made environmental disaster of the 20th century. The statistics make for relentlessly grim reading. By 2002 the area of the sea had halved and its volume quartered; by 2007 the area had dropped to 10 per cent. Mammal species in the region have dropped from 70 to 30; birds from 319 to 168. All 24 species of fish have disappeared from the southern sea whose water are now ten times saltier than before. The surrounding desert has grown by 30 per cent. And yet perhaps the most astounding fact of all is that this was no accident; the Soviet planners knew full well that their actions would destroy the Aral Sea.

The human cost is already apparent. The chemical cocktail of pesticides and defoliants reached into the sea from the surrounding cotton fields has been concentrated and deposited on former seabed as thousands of kilometres of salty crust. The people of nearby Karakalpakstan have suffered the brunt of the disaster, suffering the world's highest levels of anaemia and oesophagus cancer, along with epidemic levels of tuberculosis, kidney, liver and respiratory diseases, cancers, immunological/neurological problems and both genetic and birth defects.

As the sea withers to the shape of a shriveled pair of lungs, hidden dangers have surfaced. In 1840, English captain James Abbott heard of an enchanted castle on the island "from which there is no return", where dragons guarded treasure vaults girdled by flaming quick sands. Today the vaults of Vorozhdenie Island have opened to reveal a secret Soviet-era biological weapons testing ground and a scattering of buried anthrax deposits. Think that's scary? During the 1980s the receding sea exposed enough sea bed to fuse the once remote island to the mainland.

The Aral Sea is not just a local problem. The Aral straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, waters are diverted from it to feed Turkmenistan, and its water source lies locked in the glaciers of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Sandstorms- carry millions of tonnes of toxic chemical salts, the dry tears of the Aral, into the atmosphere to deposit as far away as Ferghana, Georgia and the Arctic coast. The shrinking sea no longer moderates the extreme continental climate of the closed environment. Summers are getting hotter, winters colder and cotton yields are plummeting. Russia, as the 'centre', is also intricately linked to both the problem and any solution.

In 1987 the Politburo finally shelved its plan to divert water from two Siberian rivers to stabilize the sea. In 1994 and 1995 the leaders of the five Central Asian states met in a now annual conference to formulate a cohesive rescue plan, committing 1 per cent of their national budgets to a solution, but none can afford to cut back on cotton production or even agree on what should be done next. In 1987 the southern sea separated from the northern. Then in 2003 the southern sea divided again, making three Aral seas at last count.

Only the northern little' Aral Sea in Kazakhstan offers a glimmer of hope. Two new dams have managed to raise the level of the northern sea by almost 2 metres, improving salinity, moderating local weather patterns and even reviving the local fishing industry. Yet this last-ditch rescue plan is also a nail in the southern sea's coffin, coldly condemning the larger sea to its fate.

The shrinking of the Aral was noticed in 1868 by Eugene Schuyler. Perhaps now, well over a century later, the best hope for the sea lies concealed in this very fact-hidden in the wider sweep of nature. What man has created, perhaps only nature can now redress.



From the words of traveller: 

"I did the trip in October 2009 with a group in Russian UAZ jeeps. We drove west for awhile along the sea’s former bank and then set out across the dried-up sea bed, where oil refineries belched fire and black smoke in an eerie scene reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. After a halfhour we left the smokestacks behind and entered the heart of the Aral Sea bed. The part we were traversing had been dry for so long that already a forest of sage brush had spouted. Then the foliage petered out, and we entered a land of interminable salt flats receding into mirages in every direction. In front of us loomed the Ustyurt Plateau, stretching into Kazakhstan to the north and all the way to the Caspian Sea to the west. We had a picnic lunch in the shadow of cliffs that once abutted the western border of the Aral Sea, before ascending to the top of the plateau. There wasn’t much up there, although it’s said to be prime grounds for hunting boar, fowl and rare Saiga antelope. Our drivers picked out their route then sped across the top of the plateau, often at breakneck speeds.

After about 45 minutes an intensely blue slick appeared on the horizon. It was our first sighting of the Aral Sea. Against the barren backdrop of the dried-up sea bed and the rocky Ustyurt Plateau it looked profoundly beautiful, all the more so for what it represented – the futility of man’s attempts to subjugate nature. An hour later we drew level with the water’s edge. Here, recently exposed bits of sea bed were rendered in various shades of grey. The bits closest to the water were the darkest. They still glistened, like mudflats exposed by low tide, only in this case the low tide was eternal. The mud would soon dry up and crack. In a few years it might sprout sage brush and draw oil prospectors. Thus was the future of the South Aral Sea. Watching the Aral Sea recede before our eyes was moving and depressing. We rode in silence for another 45 minutes before descending to our campsite near the water’s edge. It had taken us about five hours to get out here from Moynaq (including many stops), and it was already getting chilly. Only two of us remained committed to swimming. To do so required wading through 50 metres of knee-deep muck before the water became deep enough to submerge.

It proved worth the slog. The water was salty enough to suspend a brick. We lay flat on our backs without moving a muscle, buoyant as corks. That night we were treated to a stunning harvest-moonrise over the Aral. Conversation, vodka, a huge meal, and a cold, restless night of sleep in a camouflaged tent followed. The next morning I departed about as satisfied as one could be with an organised tour, armed with the following painfully obvious advice: see it while you still can".