If you’re lost in a desert for days and you get all water deprived and delusional, then start imagining things like tug boats, herds of camels, or dead fish, it’s safe to say you’re probably tripping the fuck out. Not the case if you’re in Uzbekistan’s former Aral Sea region, a toxically charged sand pit that once housed one of the world’s largest lakes. Besides being a nightmarish mirage and one of the worst environmental disasters ever, it’s also the world’s creepiest maritime cemetery fit with abandoned harbour fronts, fishing boats, and ghost villages where fishermen used to live while harvesting the once abundant fish stocks.
Once covering 26,300 square miles, the giant lake is now split into four pitiful puddles of what it used to be, having dramatically shrunk causing a cataclysmic environmental disaster in the surrounding ecosystems. It was all part of massive Soviet industrialization “5 year plan” in the 1940’s led by Stalin (so you know it was a good idea) that rerouted surrounding rivers away from the Aral Sea. Under the jurisdiction of the “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature” Stalin required the categorical eradication of the sea to close to 10% of its former size, in order to foster a cotton industry in Uzbekistani fields, something he considered “white gold.” As a result, the fishing industry that employed 40,000 workers and supplied one-sixth of the Soviet catch, was totally eradicated causing widespread economic issues and unemployment for once coastal Uzbek villages.
While the plan kind of worked (agricultural yields did boom for a time in the 60’s), it also contributed to the natural lethal cocktail the region has become. Over the last fifty years Uzbek farmers were in the habit of using insoluble pesticides and unregulated industrial farming chemicals, which then seeped into the former Aral Sea, along with the megatons of dried sea salt. Together they now cause unseen before apocalyptic sandstorms of toxically charged particles. Not only that, but the soil has been completely salinized, making the region unfarmable and uninhabitable, while a strain of drug resistant tuberculosis and cancer slowly kills the remaining locals. If things couldn’t get any more fucked up, it was revealed after the fall of communism that the Soviet government had tested bioweapons on Vozrozhdeniya island, or Rebirth island, at a top secret laboratory, then dumped shit like anthrax, the bubonic plague, and smallpox into nearby storage facilities that have since eroded into the landscape.
Rotting ships against sand waves.
Aleksandr Assarin, a former Soviet official, told the New York Times in 2002 that this colossal environmental fuck-up was totally calculated: “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.” And, interestingly, the socio-political fate of the region is closely linked to the dried up lake.
Once Uzbekistan gained independence it was thought the Aral Sea disaster might begin to be corrected, instead Islam Karimov (practically their dictator) consolidated power a la Soviet, and continued to profit off of the cotton industry. Presently, water in the region is on the cusp of becoming the next reason for a resource war.
In a region with a swelling 58 million people the steppes is already wrought with Islamic fundamentalists and civil wars, the competition for water between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan now threatens to become the next great conflict zone. In other words, that area could really use that giant lake filled with clean water to share. The legitimate possibility of a “Water War” in the near future is becoming imminent. For the last few months, there’s been a serious escalation of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistanover a proposed dam by the Tajiks.
An abandoned harbour front int he middle of the desert.
Beyond the sandstorms, unholy tuberculosis, and boat graveyards, the Aral Sea embodies the fate of an entire region and gives humanity a visceral example of what an actual Apocalypse looks like.