Red Corner: The Aral Sea(less)

Spare a moment for the fisherman of the Aral Sea.

50 years ago they pulled 50,000 tons of fish out of this body of water annually. Today, the water is all but gone and the fish replaced with camels.

Located mostly in Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea was once one of our planet’s largest bodies of water–until, that is, the Soviets started dabbling with Mother Nature. In the 1960s they began tapping into the rivers that fed the Aral and diverting their waters eastward to grow cotton in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These were not natural cotton growing regions; they were mostly desert. But the Soviet decided to force the issue nonetheless.

Over the next 30 years, the sea shrank to half its size, causing the salinity of its waters to increase to the point where fish could no longer survive. By the 1970s they had all died off. Flounders–which thrive in high salinity–were eventually introduced to the waters, but this wasn’t enough. So much of the sea had disappeared that one can stand on old docks and see nothing but sand, camels, and ships marooned in the desert. In fact, many young people who live in Aral City, once a thriving fishing town on the shoreline, have never even seen the ocean it has receded so far away.

I tried visiting about ten years ago to check it out for myself, but every Uzbek I met told me how the region was rife with disease and airborne toxins blowing through the desert.

Although the Aral Sea catastrophe is truly one of mankind’s greatest ecological disasters, there is now a slim sliver of hope. The LA Times is reporting that a new dam has recently been built on the Kazak side. It has raised the water level and fishermen are starting to dream again. But a dream it will remain. There are no plans or money to increase the dam to a size which would return the waters to the levels they once were. The Aral Sea will remain dead and lifeless for many years to come and the bizarre sight of fishing vessels buried in sand dunes will continue to amaze.