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The Disappearing Aral Sea

Hulking, rusting ships, part of a former fishing fleet, lie incongruously in their desert graveyard. We're in Moynaq, Uzbekistan, once a bustling prosperous fishing port on the Aral Sea, a sea that is now 200 kilometres away. Once the world's 4th largest inland sea, it is now one-tenth its original size, a toxic mix of chemicals unable to support any life.


Former fishing ships slowly rust in their desert graveyard.
These ships have many stories to tell.
Only the sign is a testament to better days.

The beginning of the end began in the 1940's with cotton farming. Growing cotton, a very thirsty crop, in the desert, requires massive amounts of water. Tributaries of the Aral Sea were dammed and irrigation projects established by the Soviet government. As cotton production grew, so much water was diverted that the sea began to shrink.


Aerial maps show the stark shrinkage of the Aral Sea.

Our oldest daughter Shannon, and son-in-law Chris have joined us in Uzbekistan, where we have signed up for an overnight tour to the Aral Sea with Aral Sea Discovery.


A visit to the local museum saddens us as we browse the old photos of large hauls of fish and the accompanying processing plants, which at their peak employed 60,000 and contributed one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch.


A large bounty of former fish products from the Aral Sea.

Climbing back into the SUV we head to a local family for a traditional lunch of mutton soup, potatoes, bread, and of course tea, the national drink. It's also an opportunity to try camel milk. We all pass, except for Chris who gives it a thumbs up, describing as rich and creamy with a fermented taste.


The table is set.
Chris plays host and serves the camel milk.
Camels roam the parched former seabed.

From here on in there are no roads, just the dried up dusty seabed. Only an experienced driver can navigate this empty, barren landscape. Our tires kick up the dust which collects throughout the vehicle settling on any available surface, a toxic dust that contains a high concentration of salt poisoned soil, pesticides, fertilizer run-off, and industrial chemicals.


Hope these people made it out ok.

Dust storms propel these irritants into the air causing a multitude of health problems including tuberculosis, lung disease, cancer, and high infant mortality to the tens of thousands of people living nearby, as well as poisoning the crops on which it lands.


Vozrozhdeniya, once an isolated island in the Aral Sea, now reachable from a land bridge, is a former Soviet testing site for bio-weapons from small pox to anthrax. Despite some clean up efforts, it remains an open question as to how much toxic waste remains.


Driving kilometre after kilometre through this desolate desert landscape it is impossible for us to imagine it as a former sea.


It's unimaginable that this was once sea floor of the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea is an unmitigated ecological disaster, one the Uzbekistan government readily admits to, while at the same time denying any culpability regarding the resulting health issues. Instead the sea is promoted as a disaster site attracting a small number of tourists.


It's dusk when we arrive at the yurt camp and we can just make out the sea in the distance. When the camp was built several years ago it was on the shoreline, a shoreline now retreating a metre a week.


Chris explores the yurt camp.

We're assigned yurt number one and Shannon and Chris are next door. Inside is beautiful, the floors and walls covered in traditional carpeting. We even have electricity! And the beds are comfortable, a treat in a country where most beds are so hard it's tantamount to sleeping on the floor.


Noel seems to be very excited about sleeping in the yurt.

I'm assured that the yurts are warm at night, but I know that the temperature will plummet in this desert and I ask for an extra blanket. Toilets are a short walk away, either squat or western, neither of which are pleasant . An outdoor closet sized space holds what is very generously called a shower. Think I'll skip that one!


We get notice that supper is in half an hour, and we can go to the tent dining room, a very welcome refuge from the cold wind blowing incessantly from the Aral Sea.

Snacks of nuts and deep fried dough along with Coke, water, juice and the ever present bottle of vodka are laid out on the tables. Vodka toasts are always encouraged, perhaps a leftover practice of the Soviet era, but very surprising in a Muslim country.


The small basic kitchen has worked wonders and we are served steaming dishes of Plov, essentially a pilaf, Uzbekistan's national dish, accompanied by cucumbers, tomatoes, and of course bread. A meal is not a meal in Uzbekistan without bread.



Plov, Uzbekistan's national dish.

Hunger satiated we head to our yurt and settle in for the night. It's then that we notice the noise--the plastic the yurts are wrapped in for protection is blowing and flapping violently in the wind.


After a restless night we brave the chill winds to watch the sunrise over the Aral Sea. Shimmering in the glow of the rising sun it looks enchantingly beautiful.


Sunrise over the Aral Sea.
Braving the chill morning air for the sunrise.

Close up is a different story. A peculiar, somewhat unpleasant smell emanates from the strange grey gelatinous bubbles along it's shore. I walk through the peculiar sticky gooey mud that was only a short time ago under water and find some sea shells, the only sign that life once existed here.


Strange grey bubbles floated along the shore line.

With ninety percent of the Aral Sea dried up we may be some the last visitors to see it before its disappearance.


Cruising back we see field after field of cotton being harvested by hand. Accompanying the environmental destruction of the Aral Sea basin are the staggering state-imposed human rights violations of forced labour. Until recently the government forced children age 11-15, along with their teachers to pick cotton.


Fields of cotton dominate the country side.

To compensate for the loss of child labour the government has now increased it's use of forced adult labour. In the city of Asaka, thousands of workers from the GM plant are sent to pick cotton.


Bales of cotton waiting to be shipped.

In addition, farms are forced to meet state ordered quotas, buy all supplies from the state and sell to the state at artificially low prices. Profits of Uzbek cotton go only to those in the inner circle.

Sobering thoughts to digest as we continue our journey back to the capital city of Tashkent.


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