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Reviving the North Aral Sea
Aramco World / September-October 2015

By Larry Luxner

The municipal museum in the now-dusty former fishing port of Aral displays a surprising work of art: a 1921 mural that glorifies local fishermen who helped save Russia from starvation during those difficult years after World War I and the Soviet revolution by sending to Moscow 14 boxcars of fish. Nearby is a photocopy of Vladimir Lenin’s typewritten letter thanking those fishermen, and near that is a bronze bust of Aral’s own hero of that effort, Tölegen Medetbayev.

Surprising, because these 14 boxcars of carp, sturgeon, bream and other freshwater fish came from the same Aral Sea that from the 1980’s until relatively recently was too toxic and salty for anything to survive in.

Surprising also because having heard for years only about the Aral Sea’s demise, it was heartening to learn that in the North Aral Sea—which is only some 10 percent of an inland lakebed formerly a bit larger than Sri Lanka, or the state of West Virginia—a reversal of the decline is under way: The North Aral Sea is, slowly, coming back to life.

The closest commercial airlines fly to Aral is Kyzylorda, an eponymous provincial capital of about 190,000 people, about 90 minutes flight time south of Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Taking that flight late in the afternoon, my translator Dinara Kassymova and I arrived just in time to board an overnight train to Aral. We shared a compartment with a young woman who introduced herself as Aynura, on her way home with her two infant sons, Islam and Muhammad. The windows were too caked with dirt to see much out of, let alone photograph through.

As the Soviet-built train chugged and belched northwest along the steppe, I realized that most of the passengers who weren’t sleeping had gathered outside our compartment—one of the last ones in the last car—to smoke unfiltered cigarettes while gazing at the night through an open door. In search of fresher air, I wandered the other way, passing a cook nonchalantly frying onions in the dining car’s tiny kitchen; in another car, an elderly man sat facing his wife, peeling potatoes for their evening meal.

In the dining car, decorated with plastic red roses at each table, a waitress with gold teeth named Shireen served meat and vegetables. Before joining the railway, she said, she taught journalism in her native Uzbekistan. Of all the passengers, the only ones who didn’t appear to be locals were a young television reporter and his cameraman, on their way to cover a 3:00 a.m. rocket launch from the nearby Baikonur cosmodrome.

After eight hours, around daybreak, we pulled into Aral, now a gaunt little town that once thrived on fishing. A local official met us at the station, and together we walked the few blocks to Aral’s equivalent of city hall.

“When the sea started to dry up, of course everybody was pessimistic, and people started moving away to other districts,” said Tanirbergen Seytzhanovich Darmenov, the town’s deputy akim, or mayor. “This was a very big problem for Kazakhstan.”

Kristopher White is an associate professor of economics at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. He’s also an expert on the Aral Sea, whose Kazakh name is Aral Teñizi; in Russian it is Aralskoye Morye.

“Certainly, this is an environmental disaster. We’re talking about [what was once] the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water,” said White. Since 1960, he explained, when the commercial fishing catch exceeded 43,000 tons, the Aral Sea has lost as much as 88 percent of its surface area and 92 percent of its volume. In 1996, only 547 tons of fish were caught, much of it contaminated with pesticides. Meanwhile, salinity had jumped from 10 parts per thousand (PPT) in 1960—essentially fresh water—to 92 PPT in 2004—some three times the salinity of most oceans.

This, he said, destroyed fish habitats and, with the recession of the sea, “there was also what we call desiccation, or encroaching deserts. An entire desert landscape has replaced where much of where the sea was.” This has been a humanitarian disaster, too, he added, in which the sea’s disappearance brought poverty, unemployment and emigration.

Darmenov, 58, doesn’t hesitate to place blame squarely on the USSR, whose agricultural scientists and civil engineers transformed the semi-arid steppe into vast fields of cotton and wheat by building a mammoth irrigation system with some 30,000 kilometers of canals, 45 dams and more than 80 reservoirs.

“The Soviet engineers didn’t think about the consequences. They knew the lake would dry up someday, but they didn’t care. There was no democracy; everybody was scared to talk,” Darmenov said. “Some scientists warned this would happen, but nobody listened to them. In 1985, people finally began talking, but by then it was too late.”

By 2000—nine years after the Soviet Union’s collapse—the once-mighty lake had separated into two unequal parts: the smaller North Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, and the much larger South Aral Sea, mostly in Uzbekistan. And today, all that’s left of that much larger South Aral Sea is a narrow, crescent-shaped sliver of water along the western shore that experts predict will eventually disappear because it has no link to the Amu Darya that once fed it.

In October 2014, the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) released images of the Aral Sea taken by its Terra satellite from an altitude of 715 kilometers. These were among the first to show the South Aral Sea’s entire eastern basin as bone-dry—a dramatic difference from a similar image taken in August 2000. “This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” said geographer and Aral Sea expert Philip Micklin of Western Michigan University. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since the medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

Aral, population just above 30,000, is the largest town on the northeast shore of the North Aral Sea; some 73,000 people remain in the surrounding region. Here, explained Darmenov, efforts by the Kazakh government and World Bank funding must work together with Amu Darya river, the sea’s sole source of replenishment, whose fate is still largely determined by cyclical rainfall patterns as well as snowmelt from the distant Pamir Mountains.

“This is not about money, or about what man can do. Everything depends on nature,” said Darmenov. The akim’s office is decorated with a gold-framed portrait of 75-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since 1989, two years before it declared independence from the Soviet Union. “We are very grateful that our president hasn’t forgotten about this problem, and that he’s trying his best to revive the sea.”

The sea’s decline is chronicled in stark detail at Aral’s municipal museum on Tokey Esetov Street, right off the main drag, Abulkhair Khan Street. Established in 1988, the museum collects an entry fee of 200 tenge (about $1.10) from each of the 15,000 people who visit annually.

Here, stored in three glass display cases, are animal teeth, shells, glass shards and ceramic fragments all found on the dry seabed after the lake began drying up in the 1970s. There’s also an 1853 map of an obviously much larger Aral Sea, made by Commander A. Butakoff of the Imperial Russian Navy, as well as a painting made in 2003 showing, a bit nostalgically, what Aral port looked like in the 1960s.

Remote it may be, but museum’s guest book is filled with comments from Dutch, French, Spanish and American visitors. Yet to museum director Madi Zhasekenov, the museum is not just for tourists.

“We want to show our generation how life used to be here,” Zhasekenov said as he locked up his collection of artifacts to go out for his lunch break.

The 53-year-old walked across the street to a park where as a teenager in the 1970s, he said, he would hang out with his friends. The concrete benches where they’d gaze out on the shore of the Aral Sea are still there, but these days there is no sea to be seen. Instead, children frolic on a rusted merry-go-round. The feeling of nostalgia and loss was palpable.

“My children don’t want to live in Aralsk,” he said quietly, using the common Russian name for the town, “but I grew up on the shores. I don’t want to leave. This is my home, and I believe the sea will come back.”

Zhasekenov then invited me to lunch at his wooden shack across the street from the aging Hotel Aral. To my surprise, the museum curator opened the door to a storage room, sat down and started to play a rickety old piano. Not one of its 88 keys was in tune. Then he took out a rusty German trumpet lacking a mouthpiece, and pretended to play.

It’s easy to understand why Zhasekenov misses the old days. In 1976, according to a historical marker at the once-thriving port, Aral shipped 5,000 metric tons of wool, 340 furs, 3,000 sheepskins, 1,500 pairs of woolen gloves and 1,200 pairs of woolen trousers. Now, the tourists who stop by here can climb aboard the Lev Berg, a fishing boat painted bright blue, and look out over the desertified lakebed. Two rusting cranes that have not been used since the early 1980s hulk up into the otherwise flat horizon.

But the waters that by the early 2000s had retreated 100 kilometers from Aral are now only 20 kilometers away, and they are coming closer.

“We inherited the problem of the Aral Sea from the Soviet Union, but as soon as we became independent, we adopted special programs,” said Zhanbolat Ussenov, director of the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs and former spokesman at Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry.

“We of course understood that we wouldn’t be able to save the sea on our own—neither from a financial nor an expertise point of view—so we created an ‘International Save the Aral’ fund,” Ussenov explained. “We invited the World Bank and individual countries to help us with this environmental catastrophe. And I’m happy to say that today the Aral Sea is slowly returning back to its original boundaries.”

The dream of saving the entire Aral Sea—both North and South—is unrealistic, say experts who know the region. But everyone seems to agree that the first phase of the project Ussenov alluded to—officially known as the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea Project, or SYNAS-1—has been a success so far.

Ahmed Shawky M. Abdel-Ghany is a senior water resources specialist with the European and Central Asian region of the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. Shawky, who’s managed this project from his Washington office since late 2010, said SYNAS-1 cost $83 million, and it included a subproject for restoration of the North Aral Sea.

“We’re not talking about the whole Aral Sea, just the northern part that fully lies in Kazakhstan,” said the Egyptian civil engineer, who’s worked in 20 countries during his 12-year career with the World Bank.

He said that one crucial element of SYNAS-1, the construction in 2005 of the 13-kilometer-long Kok-Aral Dam, increased the volume of water in the North Aral Sea by around 50 percent within three years.

“The northern Aral Sea was initially 38 meters above sea level. Now it could reach around 42 meters,” said the engineer. “As a consequence, salinity in the NAS has been reduced by around half, but all these numbers are subject to the hydrological variables that change every year.”

Proof, he said, lies not only in the decreasing distance from Aral town to the shore, but also in the area’s fisheries, which have doubled or tripled output in recent years. “The government and donors hope that with the SYNAS-1 follow-up phases, the northern Aral Sea gets closer.”

But even 20 kilometers seems like an eternity when the only way to cover it is via 4-wheel-drive over a dirt road that vanishes into nowhere just past the edge of town.

That simple journey required nearly two off-road hours, taking us past the dried-up village of Mergensai as well as scattered, hulking ruins of fishing trawlers that sit abandoned in the scorching sun, covered with graffiti.

At one time, this ship graveyard was a major attraction luring so-called “dark tourism:” Photos of camels roaming the desert with these vessels in the background are on display in the Aral museum, and they have appeared in travel magazines to publicize the plight of the Aral Sea. The camels are still there, though in recent years most of the vessels have been cut up into scrap that has been sold to China.

While visitors who actually make it to the seashore aren’t likely to find a hubbub of fishing activity, there’s certainly more going on here than in the recent past.

One hardy soul is Marat Karebayev, who sets out on his wooden blue dinghy around 7:00 every morning and usually doesn’t return until 5:00 p.m. He’s been fishing for five years, and he says he earns 10,000 to 20,000 tenge (about $55 to $110) each day. From that, he has to deduct the cost of gasoline (about 800 tenge, or $4.50 for 10 liters) as well as the fishing net (60,000 tenge, or $330), which must be replaced once a year.

“The sea is now much closer than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said the 31-year-old Karebayev, dressed in navy blue overalls, a black sweater and a checkered beret. “I catch more fish now, and the prices are higher.”

Some 22 varieties of fish are now commercially exploited out of the North Aral Sea, and the catch is coming in around 6,000 metric tons per year, said Darmenov, the deputy mayor. He says that could rise to 30,000 tons annually if World Bank-funded projects now in place bear fruit.

His optimism is shared by Adilbek Aymbetov, director of the Aral fish processing facility on the edge of town. The plant has been working for nearly five years. About 25 people work there, packing carp, northern pike and other fish both for local consumption and export to the 28-member European Union.

“In 2000, there was huge unemployment, but things have gotten better,” said Aymbetov. In 2013, he said, he processed 300 tons of fish and exported about 100 tons, up from production of 215 tons and exports of 97 tons the year before.

In 2011, the World Bank’s Shawky visited Kazakhstan to finish the SYNAS-1 evaluation report and plan for the second phase: SYNAS-2. This seven-year, $126 million effort is funded largely by the World Bank itself—$107 million—with Kazakhstan providing the remaining $19 million.

“The government is really eager to start as soon as possible,” Shawky said, noting that SYNAS-2 includes rehabilitating delta lakes, developing fish hatcheries, upgrading flood dikes and straightening river meanderings in order to improve water flow.

Shawky said he foresees a third phase, too. “That’s when you’ll really see this whole lower part of the Syr Darya basin area developed,” he told us. “Then, and only then, could we say that this is one of the biggest environmental projects in the world.”

Sagit Ibatullin is former chairman of the executive committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). The Kazakh official, appointed by President Nazarbayev, headed the five-nation body from October 2008 to August 2013, at which point Uzbekistan took over the rotating leadership. He recently told Kazakh media that the organization’s plan for bringing back the entire Aral Sea—both South and North—if fully implemented, would cost as much as $12 billion.

KIMEP University’s White pointed out that while most of this would have to focus on the far more beleaguered South Aral Sea, Kazakhstan’s efforts to revive the northern portion of the sea “has been hailed as a success from an environmental standpoint, and I think rightfully so.” The northern Aral Sea has come back a little bit—nowhere near the scale of what it was prior to 1960—but without question it has been stabilized and is now returning.”

The fisheries, engineers and bankers got a boost last year from an unexpected corner: British rock band Pink Floyd, which since its birth in 1965 has decried alienation commercialism and environmental degradation. It a new music video, “Louder Than Words,” featuring inhabitants of Aral and nearby villages filmed against a backdrop of deserts and abandoned ships. At last count, it had been viewed nearly seven million times.

Aubrey Powell, Pink Floyd’s creative director, recently told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service that although the surreal quality of ships stranded in the desert appealed as a setting for a video on environmental disaster, “It’s not so much about the disaster—that’s been written about endlessly—but more about what it means to the younger generation, the children of the impoverished and disenfranchised communities around the Aral Sea that have lost fishing and culture.”

Nobody knows how many fans Pink Floyd has in Aral. But KIMEP University’s White did say that during his most recent visit to the region, he and his environmental team saw new houses being built; inside homes, he saw new televisions and refrigerators.

“We went around the entire northern Aral Sea and talked to folks in very remote villages, some of which have only recently gotten electricity,” said the professor. “There’s a generally positive outlook for the future, which I don’t think has been the case around the Aral Sea for a long time.”

Aral native Yerken Nazarov, 31, appears to share that newly positive outlook. His grandmother was a fishmonger who lived to celebrate her 100th birthday.

“What needs to happen to bring the sea back?” I asked Nazarov on my last afternoon in town, before taking the night train back to Kyzylorda. He thought for a second and replied: “We need to hope.”

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