Letter From - Winter 2016

Letter from the Aral Sea: All Dried Up

How the fourth-largest landlocked body of water on earth almost disappeared

By Jeffrey Tayler | December 7, 2015
A rich sturgeon fishery has given way to a graveyard of ghost vessels that have come to symbolize the Aral Sea tragedy. (P. Christopher Staecker)
A rich sturgeon fishery has given way to a graveyard of ghost vessels that have come to symbolize the Aral Sea tragedy. (P. Christopher Staecker)


As the sun edged beneath the horizon, tinting the turquoise sky above and water below with hues of magenta, peach, and crimson, a grizzled, copper-skinned, 55-year-old Kazakh fisherman slowly worked the oars of his fiberglass launch, guiding it lazily across the glassy surface of the North Aral Sea. We were just offshore. Marsh birds keened softly, flitting through the reeds; frogs released droning staccato calls; and terns hovered, now and then splash-diving and emerging with fish in their beaks. The scene was one of maritime tranquility untouched by humankind. But the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest landlocked body of water on earth and a bounteous source of sturgeon and other prized edibles, suffered one of the greatest man-made catastrophes the world has known, and nearly dried up.

The fisherman, Do Puzbay, peered into the aquatic murk at his fishing nets, which spread in lazy half-loops paralleling the coast.

“There’s a snakehead,” he said in broken Russian, pointing to a glinting, green-yellow blur writhing a foot or so underwater. He set aside his oars and pulled the net atop the gunwale, and with it, a muscular, two-foot-long piscine predator that, with its scaly tubelike torso, did resemble a serpent. With fangs, air-breathing gills, and sturdy pectoral fins that enable it to crawl overland in search of water during dry spells, the snakehead has earned worldwide notoriety as a particularly adaptive invasive species. The rest of Puzbay’s hundred-pound catch that evening was mostly carp, which would earn him a hundred dollars’ worth of Kazakhstani tenge at the market in Aral, the nearest town.

That there are fish at all here now is miraculous. Ever since the middle of the 18th century, tsarist Russia had considered diverting water from the Aral’s two tributaries, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, to irrigate parched fields along segments of their 1,500-mile courses from the mountains to the east. But not until 1946 did Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, aiming to ensure the Soviet Union’s self-sufficiency in cotton production, finally have plans drafted, and irrigation commenced in the late 1950s in what today are the independent states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The irrigation vastly reduced the Aral’s inflow of water.

The size and shape of the Aral, owing to natural changes in the Amu Darya’s course and human intervention on the Syr Darya, had always shifted, but this time was different. Little more than a decade after the damming and digging of irrigation canals, its surface had contracted by two-thirds, mean water levels had dropped from 53 meters above sea level to 42, and by 1987, one sea had drained away into two smaller ones, the North Aral and the South Aral (the latter mostly in Uzbekistan). By 2000, three-fourths of the sea had vanished; and its complete disappearance loomed a few decades hence. Without the water’s moderating influence, the climate worsened. Winds ripped across the arid seabed, stirring up clouds of salty dust that also carried traces of pesticides, fertilizers, and sewage as far afield as Greenland and Antarctica. The Aral became a worldwide problem; United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the sea in 2010 and called it “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.”

The consequences proved particularly baleful for the region’s Turkic inhabitants, who, in Kazakhstan, had already suffered from Stalinist annihilation of a fifth of their population and been forced by the Soviets to abandon their traditional way of life, nomadic animal herding. Settlement was a fierce blow to a people whose very name, Kazakh, means “free person.” The rising salinity, eventually twice that of the oceans, killed off the fish and thus the Aral’s robust fishing industry.

Did anyone protest to the Soviet authorities? I asked Puzbay. Brigade leaders did, he said, “but no one listened.” The sea shrank and shrank. The Kazakhs around the Aral chose not to mobilize to save their sea, decades of dictatorial rule and oppression having rendered them passive. Instead, they adapted, mostly by moving away.

In the mid-1990s, however, Kazakhstan’s authorities, working in concert with the World Bank and other organizations, began reversing the damage, but only in the North Aral. The 2005 construction of the Kokaral Dam halted the outflow of water from the North to the South Aral, and allowed sea levels in the former to rise.

Earlier in the day, I had visited Puzbay’s village, Tastubek. A barren steppe settlement of squat stone houses and braying, sloppily sheared Bactrian camels, Tastubek once stood on the shore, but the Aral’s shrinkage left it eight miles inland. Fishing halted in 1976. Born into a family whose age-old livelihood had been fishing, Puzbay (and many other Kazakhs) emigrated north that year to the Aktobe oblast to fish in local rivers. Now he and his seven-member family benefit from the sea’s restoration. The first fish to thrive was the Black Sea flounder, which does well in salty water. With the eventual freshening of the North Aral, the flounder have almost disappeared; freshwater species are recovering, however. Even if fish harvests are still a tenth of what they were, they suffice to provide a living. Puzbay regularly catches 13 edible varieties of fish, mostly pike perch, sazan carp, and snakehead. This and his herd of 60 camels have afforded him, for the first time in his life, a decent income.

In Puzbay’s house, I sipped tea and lounged on red-and-gold kilims as his scarved daughter-in-law served us a terrine of boiled carp and potatoes and he talked of the worsened weather.

“The sandstorms kick up salty dust,” he said, “and it covers the ground in white powder. The rains have lessened, and summers, never before hotter than 88, now hit 104.” (The record is 120 degrees Fahrenheit.) “It gets so hot you can’t go outside.” He scratched his crewcut and shook his head.

“Isn’t the weather better now?” I asked.

“I haven’t felt the climate improve with the sea’s rise,” he replied.

I stood up and looked out the window to the surrounding steppe–dry, grassy lands streaked with salt flats extending to every horizon, with, here and there, camels foraging in knee-high brush. It was hard to imagine that life for man or beast here could ever have been anything but a punishing struggle under a fiery sun. But winter would come, bringing blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 62. Covering much of Kazakhstan is what scientists call “cold desert”—a designation shared by the Gobi in neighboring China and Mongolia.

The cold does not deter the Kazakhs. “We fish through holes in the ice in winter,” said Puzbay. “The Aral’s ice is strong enough to drive a truck over.”

“That sounds dangerous,” I answered.

“Well, there are no easy times for fishermen. But it’s most dangerous in spring, when the ice gets thin.”


A satellite photo shows that the Aral Sea has contracted to a quarter of its former size, but a dam has restored fishing to the North Aral. (NASA)

I had begun my time near the Aral Sea in what was once its main port, Aral, a wind-sheared, sand-blasted town of 30,000 souls that had at least 80,000 and, until the 1990s, a functioning airport and a busy fishing fleet. I put up at Aral’s lone, sadly dilapidated hotel, which stands on Portovaya Ulitsa (Port Street) and, had it been built in time, could have boasted a killer view of the water. Now, the only signs of the sea are a few boats a block or two away, stranded on land after the water receded eight miles to the southwest, leaving behind salt flats, scrubland, and destroyed lives. Plans to bring the Aral back to the edge of town, inaugurated with a visit by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2008 and $250 million in aid, have yet to produce results.

Inside the air-conditioned environs of the Aral Scientific Investigative Institute for Fisheries, I met with the director, Zaulkhan Ermakhanov. An earnest man with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and a sad cast to his eyes, Ermakhanov was born in a village on the Aral’s shore in 1950. The transformation of the sea motivated him to study ichthyology in Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty. He rattled off facts about the disaster: an annual 50,000-ton fish harvest reduced to five tons; 30 species of fish dwindling to 22; rare mammals, including saiga antelopes and shaggy kulan horses, once confined to islands by the water, escaping across dried seabed into the steppes.

“Before,” he said, “we had lots of fresh fish, no dust storms, and clean air. The problems began in 1961 but became really bad by 1970. You wouldn’t believe it now, but this place was like a resort.”

Not all of Aral’s woes were generated by its irrigation-induced desiccation. On a military base out on Vozrozhdeniye Island, on the border with Uzbekistan, the Soviet government built a secret military base and tested biological weapons (including smallpox, botulinum toxin, and anthrax) on horses, monkeys, sheep, and rodents. In 1971, 10 Aral residents fell ill with smallpox. The authorities quarantined the town and vaccinated its population, limiting the death toll to three. Chemical weapons remained stored on the island until the 1990s, when the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, closed the base and ordered the stockpiles destroyed. But in 1999, live anthrax spores were discovered on the island, raising fears of contamination.

“There’s a risk that rodents carrying anthrax escaped and have gone underground,” said Marat Turemuratov, a 56-year-old native of Aral, as we sat in the Chinson Café on Port Street, talking about how the Aral Sea disaster has affected the health of his patients. A lean physician in a black fedora and knit sweater, he spoke in unaccented Russian, gesticulating calmly with his hands, his eyes intelligent and sympathetic. “But so far, thankfully, we have no proof of it.” For Turemuratov, the Soviet days were brighter times. “There were health problems then, but the authorities kept track of things and had them under control.”

Not so now. As a general practitioner working on an ambulance team, he has come to know just how bad the aftereffects of the Aral Sea’s drying up still are. “Tuberculosis, heart disease, anemia, infantile diarrhea—we have all these problems here,” he said. He might have also mentioned kidney diseases and throat cancers, as well as an alarmingly high infant mortality rate. “They stem from the general breakdown in life in Aral after the sea shrank.”

Then his eyes lit up. With the Kokaral Dam, he said, people are living much better and coming from other parts of Kazakhstan to buy fish. “You see fishermen with satellite television, and they all have Internet. If things are not 100 percent better, they are surely improving. The sea’s diameter is now 100 kilometers. It’s not much compared to what it was, but it will at least feed us.”

Fish caught in the sea once supplied three processing plants around Aral and fed Soviets across the land. Now, freezer trucks mostly head straight for profitable markets farther east or north. Aral’s tiny fish market reflects this: only a half-dozen Kazakh women sat on sandy earth under a pair of tarps peddling carp and pike perch. A few steps away, inside a cavernous room, other women hawked greasy, yard-long slabs of smoked fish.

During my stay in Aral, the sky for most of the day was a canopy of brightly burnished steel, wearying to the unprotected eye. But out on the steppes one afternoon, as I trundled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle toward Kokaral Dam, the sky was a cirrus-laced blue. A cold front had moved in, and I regretted not having brought a sweater.

Two hours after setting out, my driver Samalbeg and I pulled up alongside Aklak Dam, which controls the Syr Darya’s phosphorescent, green-blue debouchment into the North Aral. We stopped and got out.

Samalbeg pointed to man-size triangular blades of rusted steel rising from the currents just above the sluices. “They cut up ice floes during the winter. And over there you see the rybakhod,” the fish ladder, a narrow concrete side channel bypassing the dam. “It lets fish return upstream to the river.”

Another hour of violent, knock-about riding across the steppe took us to a vista of the North Aral much more majestic than anything I had seen so far. Stirred by a steady wind, the sea swept away from the shore like foam-spattered liquid sapphire, overflown by pelicans and swans, to desert mesas on a blue-misted horizon. We soon swerved onto a nine-mile stretch of stabilized road laid over the dyke that formed the eastern part of the Kokaral Dam. Built in the early 1990s, the earthen ramparts, under pressure from the sea’s accumulating waters, had twice given way, but since 2005, with the completion of the sluice-equipped concrete dam, it has held.

We jumped out. Water thundered through the dam’s open gates down into the South Aral. On the downstream side, we came upon a disturbing sight: fish leaping desperately—and futilely—into the descending torrents, trying to regain the North Aral.

Samalbeg looked moved. “The Russian company”—Zarubezhvodstroy—“forgot to build the rybakhod. The South Aral is so salty, fish can’t live in it. Once they are swept into the South Aral, they can’t make it back, and die.”

White dust devils spun their way across the southern horizon, blowing off salinized flats left behind by the retreating sea on the Uzbek side.

“Everything’s dead over there,” said Samalbeg.

It was hard to imagine otherwise.

For centuries before the Soviets began draining away the Amu Darya’s waters, history had been a harsh taskmaster for the people inhabiting the river’s swampy, mosquito-plagued delta on the Aral’s southernmost coast. In 1388, the Turkic khan Tamerlane invaded the region and destroyed the dam that had kept the Amu Darya from flowing into Lake Sarykamysh. The delta began drying up and would not restore itself for 200 years. Once the water had returned, seminomadic Karakalpaks, harried off the steppes by Kazakh and Turkmen raiders, settled along the coastal plain’s newly lush byways, farming millet and fishing, and venturing out into the Aral as far as the Syr Darya on 20-foot sailboats. The Uzbeks who then came to power in Khiva cruelly overtaxed and oppressed the Karakalpaks, facts noted by Russian explorers of the time, who also described a bounty of fish, fecund fields, and a plenitude of diverse wildlife, especially birds.

The Russian presence initially brought the Karakalpaks a measure of safety and autonomy, but Stalin-era planners, starting in the late 1920s, diverted the Amu Darya’s currents into surrounding fields to boost cotton yields. In the mid-1950s, the fishing fleet at Moynaq, at the delta’s head, was landing catches as big as 26 tons a year, but in 1954, the Karakum Canal began operations, channeling a third of the Amu Darya’s water into Turkmenistan. That precipitated the wholesale desiccation of the Aral and the death of the prosperous way of life the Karakalpaks had just come to enjoy. Moynaq’s fleet ended up listing on dry sand. This graveyard of ghost vessels has come to represent for the outside world the entire Aral Sea tragedy.

The white gold rush led to the hundred-mile retreat of the sea from Moynaq, leaving in its wake a new desert, the Aral Kum, rife with salty, pesticide-laden dust swirled airborne by ever more frequent sandstorms; the loss of 30,000 fishing-related jobs; the salinization of freshwater wells; and, as in Kazakhstan’s Aral, declining health for the population. Since independence in 1991, the situation has only worsened, with copious cotton revenues accruing to the government in Tashkent, while the Karakalpaks, now too poor to afford tractors, have been reduced to picking crops by hand.

To get a sense of the changes, I spoke by phone to Jalil Yesemuratov, a 47-year-old philologist by training who now tends flowers for the municipality of Nukus, on the Amu Darya. At first he reminisced happily about his youth as a Young Pioneer, when he attended the movement’s camp on the Aral’s shores and frolicked in its warm waters. But now remains of the camp stand abandoned on dry land. “It’s hard for me to think back on those days now,” he said. “It makes me sad.”

I asked how life was for him in Nukus.

“Words can’t describe what it’s like here now, at least in summer, with the heat,” he responded. “You have to experience it to believe it. The sand starts flying and it’s filled with salt. Before we had trees and plants everywhere. No longer. The sea has gone, leaving us only bitterness and grief.” He paused. “Water for us was once so easy to find. Now it’s more valuable than gold.”

Foreign aid and assistance from the United Nations have mitigated some of the disaster’s worst effects, improving local access to fresh water and health care, and stimulating private entrepreneurship to replace income lost from the demise of the fishing industry. But hopes for a Kazakhstan-style revival would be misplaced. The Uzbek government relies heavily on the cotton harvest for revenues and has no incentive—or plans—to redirect water from the Amu Darya back to the sea.

The Uzbeks may lose control over the Amu Darya in any case: the greatest threat to both the North and the South Aral is taking shape elsewhere in Central Asia, upstream in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Newly revived plans dating back to Soviet times call for the construction of hydroelectric dams on vital tributaries of both the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya; if realized, the projects would address the two countries’ energy deficit and fill their chronically depleted coffers with hard cash from the sale of power to China and other countries. They would also deal a coup de grâce to the South Aral Sea, disrupt the revival under way in the north, and wreak more havoc on the long-suffering folk living along the banks of two of Central Asia’s most storied rivers. The plans have already provoked gas cutoffs, border incidents, and talk of war.

In view of all this, I asked Yesemuratov whether he was worried about his future in already precarious Nukus.

“We live on faith in the future.” He chuckled, as if in resignation. “Do I have a choice?”

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