The sea that disappeared because of human folly - and left a toxic legacy

The Aral Sea now covers about ten per cent of its former area, but tourism could provide the region with a new lease of economic life

Powered by automated translation

At the edge of the town of Moynaq in western Uzbekistan sits a pyramid-shaped memorial that dramatically points ahead to an empty landscape stretching off to the horizon.

This memorial does not commemorate people killed by conflict, terrorism or natural disaster, but instead remembers a sea, one that has shrunk and vanished as a result of human folly.

Moynaq used to be beside the Aral Sea, but a bleak desert now sits in place of the fertile waters that allowed this town of 30,000 to develop a thriving fishing industry.

This Central Asian sea once provided seven per cent of the fish eaten in the Soviet Union, but Moynaq’s fish-processing factories have closed and the vessels that brought in the catch are marooned in the sand, overlooked by the memorial. The water is now more than 150km away.

In a film shown at a small museum beside the memorial, haunting violin music plays over black-and-white footage of fishing vessels and busy processing plants.

Eco catastrophe

Often described as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, the shrinking of the Aral Sea has left this part of Uzbekistan with a desolate feel and a toxic legacy.

“It’s a disaster, it’s a catastrophe,” Dr Bernd Heinold, of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research in Germany, who has studied dust emissions from the former sea bed, says.

“It’s foreseen that this could happen because this is the result of water mismanagement. Water over decades was taken away from the rivers that fed the Aral. This really is a man-made catastrophe in many respects.”

The Aral Sea, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, used to cover about 68,000 square kilometres, making it the world’s fourth-largest inland area of water.

Beginning just over six decades ago, however, water began to be diverted from the two rivers that flowed into the sea.

The Amu Darya, which flows in from the east, and the Syr Darya, which comes up from the south, were put into service irrigating the cotton fields of what was then the Soviet Union.

Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, the area of cultivated land in Uzbekistan is said to have doubled, but the consequences for the Aral Sea were disastrous.

Even by the early 1970s it was shrinking, but the extraction of the water continued. By the mid-1980s, Moynaq was no longer a seaside town with a popular beach as well as a fishing industry. Neither was Aral, a Kazakh town that also once had a thriving fishing sector.

The Aral Sea split into fragments and the shrinking continued. Now the sea covers only around 10 per cent of its original area.

The building of a dam that restricts flows south has helped to arrest the continued contraction of a northern fragment of the sea in Kazakhstan.

No sea-change in store

However, the South Aral Sea, as it is sometimes known, continues to get smaller and the once mighty Amu Darya does not even reach it any longer.

In place of the sea is the Aralkum desert, which has become a source of dust that over the decades has badly affected Karakalpakstan, the autonomous region of Uzbekistan where the sea once was, and the region as a whole.

“The dust is not only a hazard in terms of the fine particles, but it’s contaminated,” Dr Heinold says. “It’s transported over several hundreds of kilometres. Several large cities are affected. Tashkent [Uzbekistan’s capital] will be heavily affected. It’s a city of millions of people.”

To keep up yields on the cotton plantations, huge quantities of pesticides and fertiliser were used, which caused the water of the dwindling Aral Sea to become contaminated.

This meant that the dust left behind was poisoned. This dust has been blamed for high rates of respiratory diseases, cancer, liver disease and kidney disease in places like Moynaq, already blighted by unemployment caused by the collapse of the fishing industry.

Salty dust blown off the former sea bed was harmful to agricultural areas and meant that larger amounts of river water were needed if crops were to continue to grow.

The disappearance of most of the sea has, in addition, caused local climate change. Without the water’s moderating influence, summers have become hotter and winters, colder.

Tourism still thrives

Dr Heinold says, there is no realistic prospect of the Aral Sea returning as it was. The region of Karakalpakstan, however, is not without prospects, with tourism a potential source of jobs.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic aside, Uzbekistan has seen visitor numbers increase significantly in recent years as the country opened up following the death of its repressive former president Islam Karimov, in 2016.

An ambitious tourism strategy aims to increase annual foreign visitor numbers from 5.2 million in 2022 to nine million within just the next few years.

While many come to see the stunning Islamic architecture of Uzbekistan’s old cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, Karakalpakstan would like its share of tourists too.

Tourists already come to view the disappearing Aral Sea, typically paying several hundred dollars to be driven for several hours from Moynaq to the water’s edge, where many stay in yurt camps.

Prof Mike Robinson, of Nottingham Trent University in the UK, who has written a tourism strategy for Karakalpakstan on behalf of UN agencies, hopes this little-known region, officially known as the Republic of Karakalpakstan, can build a new cultural economy based around heritage.

He does not sugarcoat what the region has gone through, describing what has happened as “one of the world’s great ecological disasters” and an “economic disaster” too.

But he also notes that in recent years, Moynaq has attracted investment and says that the surrounding area is a worthwhile destination.

“It’s not the sort of disaster tourism that you see with people wanting to visit a former earthquake site or seeing a flood in action or even war,” he says.

“There are people who, out of pure human curiosity, want to see where the sea was. The symbols of that – the rusting fishing boats, the so-called ghost ships, now lie in the desert with the sea shore 150km away.”

Karakalpakstan has, he says, a distinctive culture and “a lot of intangible cultural heritage”, including a tradition of yurt building and vibrant craft industries.

There are myriad spectacular desert fortresses, many more than two millennia old, and Nukus, the Karakalpakstan capital, has a celebrated museum of avant-garde art that survived the Soviet era. This museum is sometimes referred to as the Louvre of the desert.

While tourism in the region is starting from a low base, it has the potential to breathe new life into what has been one of the most depressed parts of Uzbekistan.

“You have to see this as a whole,” he says, referencing Karakalpakstan’s many attractions. “Nevertheless the story of Moynaq in particular is compelling; tourists like a compelling story.”

Updated: November 15, 2023, 6:35 AM