We'd been driving for nearly an hour before we finally stopped. The off-road journey was rough, but it helped to put the surroundings in perspective. Magzhan Tursinbayev, an ecologist and my ride for the day, stepped out of the 4x4 and pointed toward the horizon as he lit his cigarette. “Everywhere here was once the sea. Now look what is left: nothing,” he said, as he pointed to the vast expanse of empty space in front of us.
Magzhan had grown up in the nearby city of Aralsk, Kazakhstan and spent the better part of his life working on projects related to the vanishing Aral Sea. Despite all the time that has passed, Magzhan is still taken aback by the dried up sea. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? It looks like another planet here,” he said.
This area used to be a lake
The Aral Sea is actually a saltwater lake that once covered an area of 26,300 square miles between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Today, it is a shadow of its former self, having split into northern and southern halves in 1986. The sea first began to shrink in the 1960s when the Soviet Union decided to divert the rivers that feed into the sea to irrigate cotton fields further south. Cotton was one of the main economic industries in Soviet times, and Moscow’s planners clearly prioritized economic growth over any environmental concerns. The aftermath of this lack of foresight is that the Aral Sea remains one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, existing as a semi-apocalyptic wasteland of dust and lost opportunity.
As the water continued to recede, the sea eventually became so salinated that native freshwater fish were unable to survive. Most local industry was related to the water, and with the water and the fish gone, so too were the jobs. Many families from the surrounding villages left for other cities. For those who stayed, the years since have been hard. Not only have they faced economic hardship, but also a range of health issues stemming from pesticide and fertilizer residues left on the bottom of the sea and spread by the wind. Life in a rural area that is dependent upon the sea can be difficult anywhere in the world, but in one where the fish and water have nearly vanished, it's been a struggle to survive.
Zhalanash is one village that has managed to keep itself together amid the hardship. A community of a few hundred people, Zhalanash was once a coastal fishing village, but now neighbors the famous ship graveyard (which isn't much of a graveyard nowadays, as most of the ships have been salvaged by locals and sold for scrap metal).
There isn’t a lot to Zhalanash besides some aging houses, sand and a few telephone poles. But people here are survivors, and when the fishing industry collapsed, many locals managed to survive by herding livestock. It’s quite common to see herds of horses and sheep wandering the dried up seabed, but the most popular choice of livestock is camels. Naturally, there isn’t much to do in Zhalanash, but most villagers say their options are to tend to livestock, leave town for seasonal work or simply get pissed.
But over the last few years, one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, oddly enough, has been shrouded in some long overdue optimism. In 2003, the Kazakhstani government, along with the World Bank, began work on the joint $85.5 million Northern Aral Sea restoration project. The hallmark of the project was the Kok-Aral dam, which was completed in 2005. The dam allows water to accumulate in the northern half of the Aral Sea in an attempt to increase agriculture and fish production in the area. So far, the results have been encouraging. A small fraction of the fishing industry has been revived and water is even starting to creep back towards the old harbour of Aralsk.
A fisherman's mudhut
At the shoreline of the Northern Aral, there are some signs of life once again. Though small fishing boats dot the water and makeshift mud huts are scattered along the coast, most fishermen come from the local villages and a crew will typically work three or four days straight before selling their catch and returning home. The mud huts are for crews to rest in between stints on the water. While admiring the sea, I was invited inside to escape the cold by Nurlan, the captain of a fishing crew.
Nurlan (pictured left) and crew
It’s obvious that the years have not been particularly kind to him. Only in his late thirties, Nurlan looks about 50. After some small talk, a few cups of tea and the prospect of vodka soon on its way, Nurlan talked to me about what life is like here. "The 1990s were a very difficult time for all of Kazakhstan, but particularly around the sea," he said.
"Not only did the Soviet Union collapse, but also the sea was drying up and becoming too salty. Most people left to find work, and those who stayed did whatever they could to survive," he said, while finishing off the last of a grilled rabbit that he and his crew had shared for lunch. “Even ten years ago it was difficult to make a living as a fisherman.”
However, despite the hardships of life by the Aral Sea, the positive effects of the restoration projects can already be felt. “Conditions have improved and now our catches are large enough to support our families and give them a better life,” said Nurlan, referring to the desalinisation of the water and growth of the fish population since the dam was built. “Life is still hard, but the fish coming back makes life easier than before,” he added.
In Aralsk, the water is a long way off, but out of sight isn’t out of mind. Statues of fisherman are still scattered throughout the city, and a few ships even remain propped up by the old harbour as a testament to what used to be. Moreover, despite the progress made by the restoration project, things are a long way off from returning to how they were. During Soviet times, Aralsk was a regional economic hub for industry and trade. Today, all that remains of that legacy is some abandoned factories and some rusting cranes. The Aral Sea region has the highest unemployment figures in all of Kazakhstan, and more and more people leave looking for work every year.
A second dam to help filter water was scheduled through another joint project with the World Bank and the Kazakhstani government to further revitalise the region. However, the project has been postponed and is waiting in limbo for financing to be arranged. Meanwhile, as the dam helps the North Aral Sea to grow, it also limits the water flowing into the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, causing it to shrink. In addition to this, the Uzbekistani government seems to have little concern for the state of the South Aral Sea and even continues to drain water for its cotton industry. The Aral Sea might be in the process of a rebirth, but for the northern half to live, the southern half must die.
The mural at Aralsk station
Water and fish have played a historic role here; even the train station still showcases an old Soviet mural where the people of Aralsk are providing fish for Russia during a time of famine. Speaking to locals, everyone seems fixated on the day when the water will finally return to the area. Estimates tend to vary about when that will be, but most say sometime around 2020. However, the government is constantly pushing these dates back, and it’s hard to predict. In the meantime, the residents of the Aral Sea region will do what they have been doing since this mess began±finding a way to survive.