Aral Sea trickles back to life

By bne IntelliNews July 23, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Aralsk, Kazakhstan -

Fifty years ago the water disappeared from the shores of the Aral Sea, leaving behind it an ecological and economic wasteland plagued by toxic dust storms. Slowly, thanks to a new dam separating the sea into two, it has been creeping back in the northern Kazakh section. Before long, water could once again flow into the harbour at Aralsk, the former centre of a thriving fishing industry.

The Kazakh steppe turns gradually to desert in the hundreds of kilometres of empty land separating Aralsk from the nearest major city. Cottages are smaller, the camels are scrawnier and clouds of dust almost obscure the isolated stations. In Aralsk, the wind howls from the empty shore, whipping up grains of sand against the whitewashed cottages. Even indoors, the wind whistles through cracks in the windows and moans through the plumbing.

The region was once the Soviet Union's fourth-largest producer of fish with a thriving processing industry. A mural at the railway station shows Lenin receiving the 14 tonnes of fish Aralsk sent to feed starving workers in the brand new Soviet Union. But this service received a harsh payback from Moscow.

Back in the 1950s, the decision was made to divert the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea, to transform Central Asia into one of the world's largest cotton-producing regions. Cold-blooded calculations of the relative values of cotton production and the Aral fishing industry resulted in the decision to allow the sea to die. "It's an old story, one that started 100 years before {Mikhail] Gorbachev, when the socialist vision of diverting the Siberian rivers to the south was first dreamed up," says Alexander Peytchev of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has launched a new project to refocus the attentions of donors on the sea. The easier option of exploiting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya was adopted as early as the 1930s, but it wasn't until the early 1960s that over-exploitation started and people noticed that the sea was disappearing.

By the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the seashore had retreated to 91 kilometres away from Aralsk and with it disappeared the livelihoods of many of Aralsk's population. The sea's surface area fell from 68,000 square kilometres in the early 1960s to just 17,160 square kilometres by 2004. Serik Duisenbayev, a project manager at the NGO Aral Tenizi, who was born and brought up in Aralsk, didn't see the sea for the first time until he was 17. "Before then, I only heard stories about the sea from my parents," he says.

"The fish processing plant in Aralsk once employed more than 3,000 people," says Duisenbayev. "However, the annual catch plummeted from 22,000 tonnes in the early 1960s down to 2,300 tonnes at the end of the following decade. In the final years of the Soviet era, Aral fishermen would travel to Balkhash and other lakes for several months a year, bringing their catch back to Aralsk for processing. But after Kazakhstan gained its independence, everything fell apart and the factory went bankrupt in the mid-1990s."

The seabed is now a new desert. "The wind scatters the salt fields, destroying crops and contaminating agricultural land. Salt has been found even near Almaty, over 1,600 kilometres away," says Peytchev. "When the fishing and fish processing industries closed down, the many of the population had to move to find new jobs." The cost in terms of human health has been even more devastating, with high levels of cancer, lung diseases, tuberculosis, anaemia in both the Kazakh and the Uzbek Aral regions.

Save the sea

The presidents of the five Central Asian republics formed the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) after independence. While this demonstrated the political will to solve the ecological disaster affecting their entire region, in practice there are still big disagreements over how the rivers should be managed. The southern part of the sea, which is mostly in Uzbekistan, has largely been left to diminish further year by year, as Tashkent relies heavily on revenues from the country's water-intensive cotton industry.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has been successful in saving the northern part of the sea, which is fed by the Syr-Darya, since it has been able to do so without the help of its neighbours. A dam completed in 2005 with funding from the World Bank has resulted in the sea level rising by 12 metres from its low point in 2003. The shore is now under 40 kilometres from Aralsk. Salinity has fallen and much of the region's biodiversity has been restored. Construction of the second phase of the dam is due to start in 2011, and within five years the sea could once again reach Aralsk.

In the northern section of the sea, the fishing industry has been reborn. In addition to the flounder - the only fish to survive through the 1990s - there are now more than 15 types of fish in the sea. Over 500 fishermen are active in the north Aral, with fishing brigades sent out from Aralsk and fishing villages along the one-time shoreline. This provides employment for at least some of the year, though there are lengthy breaks when the sea freezes and thaws each year, and for the reproduction season. During summer, fishing is halted because with no refrigeration in the fishermen's trucks, fish spoil quickly on the two hour drive from the shore back to Aralsk.

A processing plant set by Aral Tenizi with support from the Danish government was later taken into private hands but closed when its manager ran out of money. A second factory has been set up by an Almaty-based businessman originally hailing from Aralsk and employs around 40 people. However, since the fishing licences were put out to tender before the plant was set up, much of the 6,000 tonnes a year of fish caught in the sea are sent to other cities for processing or end up in the sushi restaurants of Almaty and Aktobe.

The government remains the largest employer in Aralsk, where every day troops of women are sent out to make a living picking up litter and planting flowers in the arid city parks. In rural areas, people scrape a living from their camels. Aralsk's bazaars are a rare spot of activity, doing a brisk trade in vegetables from the Kyzlyorda region, camel meat and Chinese consumer goods.

Another source of income is the scrap metal from the rusting hulks in the middle of the one-time sea. The famous "ship cemetery" some 40 kilometres across the former sea bed from Aralsk is rapidly disappearing, sold off to Chinese scrap metal dealers. If plans to further raise the sea level go according to plan, these dealers will need to be quick: within just a few years, this new land where Kazakhs herd camels and make mobile phone calls from their UaZ trucks may once again be under water.

Aral Sea trickles back to life

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