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Where on earth has the Aral Sea gone?
16 August 2007 Gośka Romanowicz

An ecological and human disaster planned by the Soviet regime

“People say there is another sea underneath the seabed and that the water went underground," says Lyuba, a retired telephone operator who has seen the Aral Sea retreat from her hometown of Moynaq over the years. All she’s sure of is that life was good before, when Moynaq was a seaside town supplying fish for most of the Soviet army and the beach was a five minute walk away from her house.

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Carcass of a fishing boat like a beached whale in the desert

Now, forty years on, the sea is 100 kilometres away and Moynaq is stranded in the desert. Why? Most of the inhabitants of Moynaq, left jobless after the sea went away, have no idea and seem resigned to the fact that the sea has departed for good. There is no anger and no one is asking questions. When we tell Lyuba that the water isn’t underground at all but further up the Amu Darya river where it is soaked up by cotton fields and parks, she resignedly replies that "that’s the sort of nation the Uzbek are, they don’t think about the future, only present-day profit."

The fact is that the Uzbeks who are now suffering the consequences of Soviet agricultural policy had little say in the matter as Moscow took all the decisions. What’s more, Soviet planners knew perfectly well that turning desert regions of Uzbekistan into water-intensive cotton plantations would spell the end of the Aral Sea. Now all the Russians have left Moynaq apart from a handful of women who, like Lyuba, are married to local men.

Since intensive irrigation began in the 1960s the sea shrank away from Moynaq and other towns once lying on its coast. As the retreating sea left fishing boats stranded in the sand with only a few salt-saturated canals, the town slowly emptied of inhabitants. What is left of the Aral Sea is now 100 km away from Moynaq, but made inaccessible by a wide belt of sinking sands, explains Peter Navratil, a geographer working in the region with the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ), a development body. Extremely high water salinity means that the sea is now almost devoid of life although a few fish probably remain, surviving near freshwater vents in the seabed.

In Moynaq itself change is slow. People who still remember the sea talk about it much as they do about Soviet times: "we lived well then... there was work for everyone..." The younger generation, meanwhile, seems completely disinterested in anything to do with the Aral Sea and pretty much ignorant of the environmental problems around it. Two twenty-something men tell us they "don’t see what all the fuss is about with all these Americans coming here and shouting about an ecological disaster." ("Americans" seems to be the generic term for tourists in general, although we have not met a single American yet in Uzbekistan.) They are left unconvinced even by the horror story of Ressurection Island (Ostrov Vozrozhdenya) - a former island on the Aral Sea that once served the Soviets as a laboratory for chemical and biological arms and that is now accessible by land, but remains highly contaminated.

In the town of Kongirat, 90km away from Moynaq, 17-year-old Jusip tells us that no, he has never been to Moynaq, he doesn’t plan to go, he doesn’t know where the sea went and he doesn’t really care. He is far more interested in going to Europe or America. For the time being, Jusip will stay in Kongirat and will continue to breathe the contaminated dust carried over from the sea and to eat food grown in the polluted soil.

Apart from the disappearing sea, land contamination is the other major problem plaguing this ecological disaster area. This too is a side effect of the USSR’s ambitions of becoming the world’s number one cotton producer - spraying the dry land with water-soluble pesticides has left it soaked with chemicals. This is where the Germans are trying to help by encouraging a switch from old-style, toxic, water soluble pesticides like DDT to new generation oil-soluble ones. Peter, who is working on the GTZ’s locust control programme, says that convincing the Uzbek ministry of agriculture to make the switch has been a long and painful experience. Individuals are easier to convince, however - when farmers see they can treat an area they would need a week for in a day they don’t need any more arguments.

For more information on the work of the GTZ see here.

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