For a young Madi Zhasekenov, summertime on the shoreline of the Aral Sea was an idyllic affair. His three-month school holidays were spent at the port near his home in Aralsk, south-western Kazakhstan, interacting with fishermen hauling in their daily catch.
“We used to fashion fishing lures from hooks and then we would stand along the sea to catch fish,” says Zhasekenov, who is now 58. “I used to catch small and big fish, and we would feed the cats and dogs for fun.”
But by the time he was 17, the water levels of the Aral Sea had dropped and the salinity had risen so rapidly that the freshwater fish that once thrived there could no longer survive. One of the hardest moments for Zhasekenov was when he realised that he needed to buy fish for his family’s daily meals.
“We didn’t know how to buy a fish because we just always used to catch them,” he said. “The first time I went to the market to buy it, it was just a very bad feeling.”
At the opposite end of the Aral Sea, the residents of Moynaq – a robust fishing hub in northern Uzbekistan that employed more than 30,000 people – experienced a similar fate.