The Aral Sea Ecological Disaster
The Aral Sea ecological disaster
I consider the catastrophe of the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest ecological problems of the 20th and 21st centuries. The murder of the Aral Sea should be a lesson for future generations, where greed, lack of education and complete ignorance can take. The Soviet Union murdered the Aral Sea, thus “solving” the problem of irrigating cotton fields. The results of this decision proved terrible ……
My experiences from these once vibrant but now tragic places led me to write an article about one of the biggest environmental disasters of our planet. I also want to assure my readers that we become more sensitive with the burden of environmental disasters after seeing them with our own eyes, what I personally experienced. This is not only a story about the disappearance of the sea, but also about climate change, loss of health, economic disaster, nuclear tests and my personal observations from Aralsk (Kazakhstan) and Moynaq (Uzbekistan).
The cause of the Aral Sea disaster
“The Aral Sea did not die, it was killed”.
Nazhbagin Musabaev, the governor of the Aralsk region.
I want to point out from the start that the Aral Sea disaster was caused intentionally by the Russians, who knew long in advance that the Aral Sea could disappear. The Soviets were so greedy that when the plan was created environmentalists were threatened by the Soviet Communist Party and forced to inform that the Aral Sea was only the nature’s mistake and it was not needed. Aral Sea in the 60’s was the fourth largest lake in the world with a total area of 68,000 km² and a maximum depth of 61 meters and 1% salinity. Survival of this huge lake was possible thanks to Amu Darya river from the south and Syr Darya river from the north-east, but also because of waters from the mountains of Tien Shan and Pamir.
In the 60’s the Soviet regime decided that the rivers of Syr Darya and Abu Darya will be diverted. They began to build irrigation canals, in order to flood the deserts, to irrigate rice, melons, cereals and cotton plantations (“white gold”). Unfortunately irrigation canals were built so badly that most of the water was wasted because it dried out in the desert. It is true however that today Uzbekistan is a global exporter of cotton, but only 12% of their canals are waterproof, what means that 88% of water does not get to the fields. Finally in 1986 the Soviets gave up on building the canals, but it was too late because now there is only about 10% of the original area of the Aral Sea left, with huge salinity and a maximum depth of only about 42 meters. The great Aral Sea split into the northern part (Kazakhstan), and the southern part (Uzbekistan). South-eastern part of the lake disappeared and the western part fled into its narrow corner.
The results of disaster
Almost all wildlife around the Aral Sea has been eradicated, because all ecosystems are contaminated with salt and toxic waste. Today about 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand are flown by winds as far as 300km each day. Salt kills the areas that would be suitable for cultivation or pastures for animals, making the area which once flourished with life look like a landscape after a nuclear bomb blast. For this reason winters are colder and summers are hotter. Although people still raise sheep, camels and horses, those who buy meat and milk know that people of the Aral region are desperate to make money and therefore they are used to the limits. At one time there were so few animals that the government banned slaughter. Families try to survive in the Aral region by selling basic vegetables and producing their own milk and meat. Unemployment around Aral is about 50% because the whole area was set for fishing.
As if that wasn’t enough the eastern and the western part of the Aral lake were separated by Vozrozhdeniya island on which Soviets buried large amounts of harmful substances. Because the water level dropped again and the island merged with the mainland, infected animals have easy access to other parts of the former Aral Sea region, which further speeds up the contamination process of the region. By the way, the Soviets also conducted nuclear tests on the Kazakh steppe what to this day is reflected in birth defects and radiation in the Aral Sea region, Semipalatinsk (Semey) and elsewhere. In 1948 on the same island of Vozrozhdeniya, the Soviets established a secret chemical weapons laboratory and at the same time also the cemetery for their wastes. Based on that, I think that nuclear bombs, ecological disasters and complete ignorance are typical for communists.
People of the Aral region leave their homelands en mass, but those who are tough continue to live in contaminated areas have a high incidence of laryngeal cancer, heart failure, lung disease, tuberculosis, jaundice, digestive problems, eye, liver and kidney problems. Lack of vitamins traditionally derived from fish means that many people have anemia too. All these terrible diseases are the result of greed and ignorance. Desert storms blowing salt and toxic wastes, in addition to all the diseases in this region also cause a lot of deaths. Child mortality under 5 is about 70-80 in 1000 and the mortality rate of women giving birth is about 15 in 1000. Water has very low standard because it is full of heavy metals, pesticides and harmful bacteria.
In the golden years the Aral Sea supplied in fish the whole of Soviet Union, and today the fishing fleet and fish processing factories have been destroyed. In good times Aral Sea gave employment to 40.000 people and not just those from Aralsk and Moynaq but also from many other surrounding villages. Today there are only rusty fish factories and rusty fishing boats settled on the former bottom of the Aral Sea. The economic losses were estimated to be around £800mln and human and social losses can not be estimated. Both Aralsk and Moynaq were a tragic experience.
Aralsk (Kazakhstan) – my own experiences
After a long and stressful journey I jumped off the train somewhere in the desert. I had a flat horizon just behind me and rail tracks and a small train station in front of me. The station bore the proud name of “Aral Sea”, although in 2010 the nearest shore was about 63km away from the town. At the station there was a large mosaic of fishermen with a great catch, and in one corner there was a head of Lenin greeting his people.
When the mosaic was created Aralsk was a major port on the Aral Sea, which exported fish to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately fish died out or fled into the rivers of Amu Darya and Syr-Darya, and all that was left of the fishing industry and the welfare of the people are wrecks in the desert, sickness and poverty. When I left the station called “Aral Sea” first saw the statue depicting a ship. House fences were decorated with anchors and in one of the many squares of the town there was a big statue of a fisherman with a fish. Only the sea wasn’t there. My walk to the town centre was a thrilling experience because I felt that I was in a place where “vampires say goodnight.” I walked along a dirt road in clouds of dust and from both sides I had old and obscure post-Soviet blocks and a road full of holes. People looked out of the doors and windows, watching me without saying a word.
When I finally got to a place that looked to me like the centre, first I went to a hotel and the only one I found was the Aral hotel. Nasty woman from the front desk very seriously said, that there was only “lux” room with sea view for 4000 tenge (about £16). Of course the price was astronomically high, but because I stepped into this mess I asked her to show me the sea. Then she swore something in Kazakh and told me to come back when I have 4,000 tenge.
The Aral hotel was the best evidence of this tragedy. Then I saw a depression in the ground, which used to be a former shore. I saw rusty fishing boats in the distance and rusty abandoned fish processing factories. Overall it was a very depressing place. The new over there was a gym and a small swimming pool located in a large white dome. Apart from that the whole place looked to me like a cemetery. Nearby houses were in terrible condition and the roads were just a storm of dirt floating in the air after every passing car. I was going to spend there one night but I have to admit that I had enough after one hour. I didn’t want to pay 4,000 tenge per night, that’s why started asking people in homes and pubs whether they provided “Gostinica”. Finally one lady took me in but not for long. In the beginning she showed me her house and told me where I could sleep. Passing through her awful garden I got to the place where I took a shower from a Russian banya, which is a big metal can spitting with water. The shower was covered with straw and foil and was surrounded by plywood.
I don’t want anyone to think that I had a luxury holiday. Then to my surprise I was asked to leave because the lady of the house changed her mind. So once again I was on a dirty road in front of Aral hotel for 4000 tenge and wrecked boats just next to it. I thought that if I’m desperate I could always set up my tent in a total wilderness, what during this trip was quite common. Fortunately I was taken in for only 1,000 tenge to the house which was better than those in India, and it was its only advantage. There were wrecked cars in the yard and a collection of empty beer bottles from several years. Anyway, I finally found somewhere to sleep and it was cheap.
After this interesting incident I went to the town centre. First I went to the Aralsk History Museum which was a great reminder that Aralsk was once a flourishing port of Asia. There were old photographs and paintings of fishermen at work with their glorious catches. I also saw the shore of the Aral Sea in Aralsk, which in the 1960’s was about 200m away from the museum. There was a map showing the course of the disaster, which is shrinking of water over the years. Other interesting objects were fish in formalin caught in the Aral Sea, also from the shore of Aralsk. The whole museum was very tragic. I talked about it with the people who worked there, they asked me where I was from, and they were interested in my travels. I left my signature in the book and went out to an empty, sandy street. As soon as I found myself in the street I saw depopulated ruined grounds and fences decorated with anchors.
Then I met an old man who said to me that in “his times” he was fishing in Aralsk and his late brother worked in a fish processing factory. What a tragedy! I headed towards the square, where there was a bank and offices, and there was also a large statue of a fisherman with a fish, and a small park. Going forward I reached the Old Bazaar. There was a big statue and from its both sides there was very chaotic and very relaxed bazaar, and a bus station (rusty buses on sand) where buses departed for Turkistan, Chimkent and then to Almaty. Unfortunately I was interested in transport to Aktau, to the Caspian Sea, but that route did not exist. Returning to my description of the bazaar, I felt that I was surrounded by a wide range of watermelons and other stuff.
Then I invited myself to a “restaurant” of a very low standard. For three eggs, bread and tea I paid around 70 pence what put a smile on my face, because I’m not a great spender. Whilst eating I witnessed how women in Kazakhstan get by on daily basis. The manageress of the pub, who was rather small and fragile, pushed out a big drunk three times. The next day in the afternoon luck smiled to me because I met few Swedes, who were just on the way to the Aral Sea. I went with them for about £15 what made me a little bit sad but it was still worth it. We drove across the empty steppe quite quickly because the driver had to give us a discount and he was short of time. I think that none of us was interested in the views, because we had seen the steppe earlier. After about an hour we reached the Aral Sea.
Of course I was glad that I got there but I would not advise future travellers to expect miracles. The biggest advantage of the Aral Sea is just the fact that it is the Aral Sea. In addition there is a big lake, a few wrecks and the steppe, although I had a chance to see a herd of wild dromedaries too. If someone has his own bike then he can get there from Aralsk, then eat in Zalynash and pitch a tent in front of shrubs with a nice view of the lake and the rusty wrecks. After a short boat trip and after a moment of reflection on the tragedy of the Aral Sea I returned to Aralsk with Swedes. I definitely recommend this trip but only with companions in order to share the costs. I always travel alone but this time I was lucky.
After returning to Aralsk I had enough of that depressing place but even if I hadn’t I still had to get out of there somehow, what is not always easy. Train tickets are often not available and buses leave only twice a week so when there is a bus I advice to go anywhere just to go forward. There were no any trains for many days in any direction so the only option was to bribe the conductor what still would have not guaranteed me to actually travel and groveling before someone does not suit me at all.
Therefore only a bus was available from the Old Bazaar but only to Turkistan and only on Mondays and Thursdays; and only about 4 in the afternoon what in reality meant 4.30 anyway. So I bought a watermelon on the road, I put a sleeping bag on the floor next old and fat with golden teeth and I left Aralsk without looking back.
Moynaq (Uzbekistan) – my own experiences
On the way to Moynaq I saw a herd of wild bactrians, but it was clear to me that weren’t any attractions in Moynaq itself. It is a sparsely populated, dirty village with several streets in the Kyzyl-Kum desert in the far away Karakalpakstan. When I got off the car wind was blowing clouds of dust into my throat and local people starred at me without a single smile. I admit however that there was really nothing to laugh at. After a short moment a man with blackened teeth from cigarettes showed me the way to the graveyard of rusty boats. After a brief conversation the driver agreed to drop us at the place where there was a monument and explanation of the Aral Sea disaster and on the desert next to us there was a view of the rusty fishing boats.
The Aral Sea ecological disaster was so great that once Moynaq was one of the major fishing ports, and today this village is 150 km away from the shore. In the 80’s they tried to fix the damage by opening channels to the former bank, but they did not succeed. Today at the entrance to Moynaq there are small lakes as evidence of those efforts. Also at the entrance to the village there is a welcoming board with fish and the word Moynaq, which is also tragic because the sea disappeared long time ago. Returning to the place where the driver dropped us there were painted maps of the Aral Sea from the 60’s and from a few years ago.
The difference is of course huge and the blame for this tragedy is partly taken by nuclear testing in the steppes of Central Asia, carried out by the Soviet Union at the time of Nikita Khrushchev. There are also boards describing exactly the tragedy and a huge drop of land in the place where the former shore used to be.
It was here from where I could see all the rusty boats, to which I went down with my Japanese companion. They were obviously good objects for photos but unfortunately it was yet just another depressing sight. In the desert next to the boats in the former bottom of the Aral Sea, I spent about three hours looking at wrecks and the empty horizon. Apparently there was nothing there but to me this desert and the history associated with it proved to be a very special place. Especially to Moynaq I took my tent, because I thought that I would have to sleep in the desert, but about 10 minutes away from the wreckage there was a very cheap hotel in an abandoned, devastated school. For a bed in a disgusting room without electricity and water supply I paid only $4. There was a shop next door which served as a popular meeting place because there was one light bulb turned on.
I spent that evening staring at the stars and the moon and listening to Metallica from my phone. The “Hotel” was so disgusting that there were missing bricks in the wall, rubbles in the toilets and dirt sticking tables, chairs and beds together. The manager of the tragic hotel made some noodles for dinner because it was all he had. When we run out of batteries in the torches we had to go to sleep. It is hard to imagine that a ghost town in the desert which is now the centre of tragedy, isolation, grief and poverty, was once a bustling with fun fishing port.
Moynaq was a very educational experience and a sad proof of ecological disaster. I advise travellers to make this effort and go to the far away Karakalpakstan, because it will be a totally different Uzbekistan than the ancient cities on Silk Road. Apart from that Moynaq and the ships on the sand were exactly what I look for in my expeditions.
The future of the Aral Sea and the maintenance projects
Progress has been made in order to save the Aral Sea, although politicians are divided. The problem is of course in enormous greed, because the Uzbek President Islam Karimov wants to extract oil and gas from the former bottom of the Aral Sea and does not intend to give up the irrigation of cotton fields across the Amu Darya river. For this purpose, he founded a mining consortium, together with China and Korea. According to the official speeches: ‘they are aware of the risks but are of good spirits’. As a result of this project instead of saving the Aral Sea many countries get richer on the environmental disaster and on health and economic disaster of the people of the Aral region. From the former bottom of the Aral Sea, from the depth of 3km they extract billions of cubic meters of gas.
When Kazakhstan became independent, the governor of Aralsk as directed by environmentalists ordered to build a dam in the northern part of the Aral Sea in order to separate it from the south and thus preserve what he could. The dam collapsed so many times, that in 2005 a new 13km dam was completed for $85mln, what raised the water level in the north by about 4 meters. Experts warned that irrigation will be a very slow process. Fortunately they were wrong, because water reached the top of the dam, practically spilling outside. Although water still has not shown up in Aralsk, salinity decreased significantly and fish returned to the northern waters. Also pelicans, flamingos, cormorants and ducks have returned, plants begin to grow, the entire ecosystem is growing again, and the water level rose by 20%. Fishermen returned to the shores drinking vodka out of happiness, and people began to build hotels with signboards “Aral is back.”
There are also fish farms where fish are given hormones to reproduce faster, and there is also a temporary ban on fishing, although it’s not always respected. I think that it is a good start but it’s too late and on too small-scale. The entire project is funded the World Bank and the oil-rich Kazakhstan, but only in one small section. A couple of new fish processing factories have been built and so many fish have been caught that one part is imported. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev plans to make Aralsk a tourist region.
In my opinion good luck Mr. President, but in 2010 I was personally in Aralsk and I think that there is still a lot to be done. First of all, I would like to see the Aral Sea in Aralsk and not 63km away. The dam is also a kind of war over water between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is doing something to save at least one part of the sea, and to this day at least 3 species of fish have survived (perch, pike and carp). Kazakhstan seems to realize that only one river is not able to bring the sea level to that of the 60’s. The southern part (Uzbekistan) is now a dead zone and it’s based on mining and irrigation of cotton fields. Unfortunately a lot of water gets wasted anyway, because only 12% reaches the fields. Instead, this water could irrigate the southern Aral Sea but unfortunately the president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov is too greedy and too busy with his own ego to take it seriously.
In my opinion the bad part of the dam is in the fact that irrigation and benefits of ecological wealth make the southern part completely cut off from the water flow. On the other hand perhaps it is better to protect what we can and maybe people will learn from their mistakes. Now we are waiting for a move on the part of Uzbekistan and its work with Kazakhstan. International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea was established in 1990’s by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Let’s not forget however that this is Central Asia which is the world capital of corruption and bureaucracy and that’s why we should not expect great or even minor ecological improvements. The leaders of these countries could just as well set up a Fund for Saving the Moon and the result would be similar.
Because of the ecological disaster climatic changes are also felt in the neighbouring countries.