Waiting for the sea

It took just 40 years for the Aral Sea to dry up. Fishing ports suddenly found themselves in a desert.
But in one small part of the sea, water is returning.


Khojabay is a fisherman who lives in a desert.

Almost everyone in his village used to fish for a living but in the 1970s the fish died, and the sea began to dry up.

Steadily, over the past 40 years, around 60,000 sq km of water, in places 40m deep, has evaporated into thin air.

The Aral Sea, in Central Asia, used to be the fourth largest lake in the world, after the Caspian Sea, and Lakes Superior and Victoria. Now barely 10% of it is left.

This must be one of the most dramatic alterations of the Earth’s surface for centuries.

In Khojabay’s village, Zhalanash in Kazakhstan, on what used to be the Aral Sea’s northern shore, there is now no water in sight, just brown earth and wind-blown sand.

“Just over there was the sea. We would come over here and dive in the water. It was right here where we stand now. There was a sandy beach and all the kids sunbathed on it,” he remembers.

His eyes are now failing him, but on the horizon it’s possible to make out three black dots, one of the few reminders of the way things once were.

Each is the wreck of a giant fishing boat beached and abandoned, now clanking and rattling in the wind. Beyond the horizon there are hundreds more.

“This ship was big, she could accommodate at least 20 or even 40 people,” remembers Khojabay, now 86.

There were fishermen, chefs, sailors and engineers. These big ships could not reach shallow docks when the sea started shrinking. One by one they stranded in the soft mud, and the mud became the sand in the wind you see now.”

For more than half Khojabay’s life, the sea provided one sixth of the fish eaten in the USSR. He became the skipper of a fishing boat.

“Right there, I once caught more than 400kg of fish in one go,” he says, pointing to the spot that now serves as the village dump. Catching 100kg was quite normal, and the fish were big and healthy – he remembers one that weighed 7kg.

Saltwater carp, flounder, catfish… they were good times.

But he also remembers when things began to go wrong. His last catch in 1976, was a net full of dead fish.

The water became so salty that when you emerged from the water after a swim, a layer of white powder formed on your body as it dried.”

Khojabay was forced to travel, with the other fishermen from his village, nearly 2,000km to Lake Balkhash in eastern Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border.

They spent half the year there in terrible conditions, without showers or toilets, infested with lice, and the rest of the year at home.

As the sea receded, the climate began to change.

“We used to grow melons and other crops. We ate them, sold them in the market and made money,” he says. “We grew clover for our cattle and barley for ourselves.”

But the rain stopped. Grass dried up, and the small freshwater lakes that once existed near the sea’s edge disappeared.

Herds of antelope that used to roam the area dwindled to nothing. The summers became blisteringly hot, the winters bitingly cold.

And just getting around became tough. In the old days everyone went from one fishing village to the next by boat.

Now they get about by car – but there are barely any roads. Instead, sturdy 4x4s bump and shake their way over tracks across the former sea bed.

Khojabay still comes out of his house every day, and by instinct looks out where the sea ought to be.

He knows he will never see it here again - but he has heard there is a chance that his 15-year-old grandson will.

The Aral desert

In another former fishing village, 24km away from Zhalanash, the water is a mere 5km from the former shore, and it is less salty than it has been for more than 40 years.

Fishing has resumed.

When the fish died, Duzbay, like Khojabay, was forced to work elsewhere.

He went to fish in northern Kazakhstan but hated the travel, and returned to work with animals, first as a shepherd, and later as a camel breeder.

Now he is once again working with fish - not in boats, but in a refrigerated depot. He pays the fishermen for their catch, and waits for dealers to come and buy it.

The salt-tolerant kambala, or Black Sea flounder, was the first to return. Then, says Duzbay, “We had hope.” Now there are silver perch, carp, and catfish too.

So why did the sea disappear, and why is it coming back?

The two biggest rivers of Central Asia used to feed the Aral Sea: one - the Syr Darya - from the north; the other - the Amu Darya - from the south.

But, crossing the region from east to west, they were also the obvious source of irrigation for the Soviet cotton industry.

Soviet planners wanted to turn Central Asia into the world’s largest producer of cotton, and for a period in the 1980s Uzbekistan did grow more than any other country.

Generations of schoolchildren and university students spent part of the year in the fields helping to bring in the crop.

Uzbekistan is still one of the top five cotton producers in the world, and the crop is one of its three main exports, along with gas and gold.

But over time a large part of the 97.5 cubic kilometres of water carried annually by the Amu Darya on its 2,414-kilometre journey from the Pamir mountains became swallowed up by the Uzbek cotton fields.

At some point in the past five years this fabled river, known to the ancient Greeks as the Oxus, ceased to reach the Aral Sea at all.

It’s not known precisely when this event occurred, because the Uzbek authorities chose not to publicise it.

The flow of the Syr Darya, once described by Alexander the Great as a fast-flowing obstacle to his army, also declined, but thanks to a multilateral agreement on water use signed in the 1980s, some of it continues to enter the sea, in modern-day Kazakhstan.

As the sea shrank, the huge volumes of pesticides and insecticides washed into it over the years gradually became more concentrated, until the fish turned over and died.

In other words, by building a cotton industry, Soviet planners had destroyed a sea, and its fishery.

What had been one sea, divided first into two separate salty lakes, the Large Aral to the south, about half of it in Uzbekistan, and the Small Aral to the North, in Kazakhstan.

The Large Aral then split into eastern and western basins.

Then five months ago, in October 2014, the eastern sea disappeared, leaving just the Small Aral and the western basin.

The British writer Tara FitzGerald, who is writing a book about the communities on the shores of Aral Sea, recently visited the area that was once the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. It is now a desert known in the region as “the Aralkum”.

The chemicals once contained in the salty water - fertilisers and pesticides - are now blown around by the wind, and have entered the drinking water, she says. Women are warned not to breastfeed their babies.

Driving around the sea bed is a strange experience, she says.

“It’s a sad picture, but there is something beautiful about it. You feel like you are driving on Mars or the Moon.”

The remaining water is a vivid turquoise colour, FitzGerald says.

I tried to swim and salt made the water so dense that you don’t need to paddle to stay afloat. It raises you, and you get this prickling sensation on your skin.”

It’s a dead sea, without fish, and it’s still shrinking. There is no river to replenish the water evaporating in the heat of the Central Asian summer, and little rainfall.

By contrast, in Kazakhstan at the northern end of the no-longer-existing Aral Sea, the Small Aral has been making a comeback, for two reasons.

One is the Syr Darya, which has continued to provide it with fresh water.

The other is a dam, which stops all this water running away into the desert.

The Kokaral dam

As the Aral Sea shrank it came to take on the shape of a snowman, with a big fat body and a small head.

The small head is the Small Aral - and the Kokaral dam was built in 2005 at the narrow neck.

It’s 13km long, and about the height of a two-storey building - and it has allowed the surface of the water to rise 3m from its lowest point.

A constant cascade of water pours from sluice gates into the desert, where it quickly soaks into the earth, or evaporates.

It’s this dam that spells hope for Khojabay’s family in Zhalanash, and for the biggest town in the region, known in Soviet times as Aralsk, and now simply as Aral.

It used to be a major centre of the Soviet fishing industry with a multi-ethnic population of about 40,000. Now almost all the non-Kazakhs have left, inhabitants say.

Many Kazakh men also went away in search of work, though some have now returned.

The Small Aral was only ever 5% of the total size of the Aral Sea, so the large fish processing plants here that now sit idle will never be as productive again as they once were.

But the water is now only 17km away, and children have been told that one day it will again be lapping at the town’s empty harbour walls.

“In the future I would like to be an engineer,” says Aydar, a 15-year-old schoolboy.

I hope the Aral Sea will return. Once the sea returns, to attract lots of tourists, I would like to build a lot of hotels and resorts - I would put all my effort into doing that.”

One of his classmates looks forward to swimming and playing in the water. A third says her brothers went away to look for work, but when they heard about the revival of the sea, they came back.

“If the sea comes back Aral will become as prosperous as Astana or Almaty,” she says, referring respectively to the Kazakh capital, and its biggest city.

It’s the Kazakh government’s goal to create conditions that will enable the Small Aral to expand until it reaches its former shores.

Along with the World Bank, it footed the $85m bill for the Kokaral dam.

For years there has been talk of a Phase Two - an enlargement of the dam that would raise the water level another 6m.

If this were to happen, experts estimate the water would return to Aral in 17 years.

But in the past few months a decision has been taken to delay this step, and first to increase the water supply from the Syr Darya.

Some water is lost each year when the river floods, so the plan is to build reservoirs that capture the floodwater and release it back into the river.

Such measures are all the more important given that Kyrgyzstan is building further massive hydroelectric dams on one of the two rivers that merge to form the Syr Darya, which is likely to increase the flow of water downstream in the winter, and further restrict it in summer.

People talk about the days when Aralsk was full of people selling fish, the cheapest fish given away for almost nothing.

Now it has a tiny fish market, a few women selling expensive fish in a gloomy room. A kilo of carp costs $4-5, but most local people can afford only flounder - if anything.

The saleswomen don’t have much to sell, but even what they have doesn’t always find a buyer.

If one day the height of the dam is raised - Phase Three, as it has now been rechristened - the market will expand.

And customers who have grown accustomed to salty-tasting fish - and actually prefer it to normal fish brought over from the Caspian Sea - may one day again start adding salt to the food on their plate.

The other shore

Khojabay is not the only one who looks daily “out to sea” across the desert.

Tara FitzGerald met another elderly former ship’s captain doing exactly the same - but 400km further south, in the one-time Uzbek port of Moynak.

His children moved away in search of jobs and his wife died, and the town around him - complete with promenade overlooking the dry seabed - is now lifeless.

The hulls of former fishing boats dot the horizon here too.

“I asked him why he was staring at the desert so long,” she says. “And he said, ‘If I look hard enough, maybe the sea will come back.’”

But it would take a miracle to bring the sea back to Moynak, and the Kokaral dam is one reason for that.

“It is helping to save the Small Aral sea,” says FitzGerald. “But it was also a death warrant to the Big Aral, on the Uzbek side. People on the Uzbek side are very angry about it. The dam shut the only source of water that was entering their sea.”

That ignores, however, the fact that the Amu Darya - known to Central Asian schoolchildren as the Amazon of the region - was diverted into myriad irrigation channels supplying Uzbekistan’s own cotton and rice fields.

This was done for what were, on the face of it, good reasons. Millions of lives depend on these crops.

“If we want to save the whole Aral Sea, then we have to stop irrigation altogether in the region,” says Medad Ospanov, head of the Save the Aral Sea Foundation. “But that would be impossible.”

Some now also accuse the Uzbek authorities of lacking the will to save the sea, because of the oil and gas deposits identified under the seabed, which are much easier to extract in dry conditions.

Russian and Korean energy companies have already begun the job.

Whatever its reasons, instead of trying to bring back the sea, the Uzbek government is focusing on two plans to help improve living conditions for people living on the perimeter of the Aral desert.

One is to plant saxaul trees on the seabed to reduce the spread of the toxic salts, which cause kidney disease, and possibly heart problems and strokes.

The other is to create lakes for fish-farming. For this it is hoping to secure large sums of money from the World Bank.

When the scale of the Aral Sea disaster first became apparent in the 1980s, Soviet planners considered moving the whole population of the Aral region.

This never happened, and though some left of their own accord, many had no desire to leave their ancestral land.

For them the disappearance of the sea is a disaster. The revival of the Small Aral brings hope to some, but it was only ever 5% of the whole. The Western basin accounts for another 5%.

Ninety per cent of the sea has gone.

It’s one of the world’s most startling ecological calamities - the story of how cotton soaked up an entire sea.