Washed-up wrecks buried in mud sit miles away from the shoreline of the Aral Sea after a dramatic shrinking in recent years. But the Journey of Discovery found a different story as it joined a small army of fishermen to see their attempts to bring new life to the region.
Muynak in Uzbekistan was once a prosperous port city on the abundant Aral Sea that spread across 68,000 square kilometres between here and neighbouring Kazakhstan but today it lies ragged and threadbare.
Muynak’s fortune was made on the Aral Sea “ once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water “ but now that sea is all but gone. Under Soviet rule in the 1960s, rivers running to the sea were diverted to irrigate the surrounding cotton fields. This was a mismanaged project which slowly but surely saw the tide recede. Unlike any other tides however this one wasn’t coming back.
Inevitably, the water withdrew and today this once grand sea, estimated to be over five million years old, is barely ten percent of its original size. While much talk exists of plans to regenerate it, there seems not the will, the power, nor the economic ability on the part of the Uzbek or international community to do anything about it.
The plains surrounding the sea were also heavily sprayed with harsh pesticides, while an island once isolated by the sea but now a part of the mainland since the tide has fallen was used for biological weapons testing by the Soviets.
The result is desertification on an almost unimaginable scale, yet one group of locals are determined to turn things around.
For the few remaining fishermen of Muynak, the conditions are harsh in the extreme. In the early days as the tide ran out, attempts were made to shore the industry up, even going to such lengths as importing fish from other regions to keep the local cannery businesses running as thoughts then turned to using metal from ships beached by the falling waters for the cans themselves.
Now even that is gone, and driving slowly across what was once a seabed under thirty metres of water is an eerie experience, made all the more so by the empty, rusted hulks of the ships stranded here forever by the vanishing tide.
Yet further across this formerly fertile seabed is a small lake where these few hardy fishermen and a solitary donkey haul nets in the freezing winter wind with the bare minimum of equipment. For every hour of backbreaking graft they catch a couple of buckets of fish, but surprisingly these aren’t for the table.
“We take these fish to another region to try and repopulate the waters there which are a little better than these,” Dilshot Usupov tells me between catches. He then clambers atop an old tanker lorry parked at the water’s edge, lifts the lid and gestures for me to look inside. Peering over the top I see murky water filled almost to the top and swarming with fish.
It’s a startling display of simple action, born out of a simple desire to repair the damaged environment and economy here.
“When the sea was here this place was a big port with a lot of business,” Usupov says ruefully, “now the water is about 30 kilometres from here and since it disappeared, so has the life here.”
But it is his final fatalistic comments when asked about the future for the Aral Sea that are the strangest, made all the more strange by the fact I’d heard them from other locals along the way.
“This sea was made millions of years ago by nature, and now only nature can return it.”
It seems impossible to believe these people aren’t aware of the irrigation projects that have dried up their livelihood, but then this is an incredibly remote corner of the globe where communications with the outside world are limited in the extreme. Either way, as Usupov trudged back to the meagre lake behind him for another round of rough toil for scant reward, I hadn’t the heart to tell him nature was neither the cause of his problems, even if there is a slim chance it could slowly prove to be a solution.Â
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