A LibArts Review Essay
What weighs more – a pound of cotton or a pound of fish?
by Christine Olivier
Positioned on the ancient Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia, Uzbekistan’s cities once flourished as trade and cultural centres. The landlocked Aral Sea, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the final destination of the legendary Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. In ancient times the Amu Darya was so large that Alexander the Great’s army needed five days and nights to cross it and the river played a major role in limiting the expansion of the empires of both Alexander and Genghis Khan.
Over the last fifty years, the Aral Sea (once the size of Ireland and the fourth largest lake in the world) has lost over 90% of its water. Parts of the Amu Darya are little more than tiny streams and can be easily crossed by four-wheel drive. The people of the former seaside town, Moynaq, have paid the highest price. Since 1968, they watched how their sea, fish, ships, jobs, mild climate, beautiful coastline, health, friends and family, and their happiness, mysteriously disappeared.
In the 1950’s, Moynaq was the capital of the Aral fishermen and a famous holiday resort. In summer, several flights a day brought Soviet tourists to the beach. With one of the USSR’s major fish canning plants, employing almost 40,000 people, it was the centre of the fishing industry in Central Asia, processing around 20,000 million cans of seafood per year. Train cars full of fish left daily for markets in Moscow.
Today, with less than 3000 residents and no sea in sight, and no running water, one can’t help but notice that there is something strange about Moynaq. All over the town, displays of fish can be seen on sun-bleached murals and posters. Placards from a previous world still line the streets: ‘Water is the source of life’, ‘Labour leads to joy’, ‘Fish our wealth’, but there is not a single drop of water in sight. How did this happen?
The Cotton Conspiracy
The territory of present-day Uzbekistan was conquered by Russia in the late 19th century. In 1919, Lenin decreed that the Soviet Union should become self-sufficient in cotton production. Central Asia, with its long hot seasons, mighty rivers and large labour force, was seen as the ideal part of the country for cotton production. However, it was under Stalin that the plan was put into action.
Not content with being self-sufficient in cotton production, he wanted “white gold” to become a major export. The plan was put into action with the forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture in the late 1920s and large scale building of irrigation canals in the 1930s. In 1948 he announced his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.
Stalin’s Great Plan wasn’t implemented in his lifetime, but under Khrushchev the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were diverted to irrigate the ever-expanding cotton fields in this arid region. Large dams were built across both rivers and irrigation from the Amu Darya was extended to Turkmenistan with the building of the Qaraqum Canal. Stretching 1300 km into the desert, it is one of the largest irrigation canals in the world and the single most important factor contributing to the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the quiet catastrophe befalling Moynaq.
No surprises for the Soviet Government
The Soviet government was fully aware that they would lose the Aral Sea. During the planning of the irrigation network in the Aral Sea basin, it was predicted that the canals would reduce inflow to the Aral Sea and substantially reduce its size. It was seen as a worthwhile trade-off: a cubic meter of river water used for irrigation would bring far more value than the same cubic meter delivered to the Aral Sea. The economic gains from cotton far outweighed the economic gains from the fishing industry.
However, no one bothered to warn the residents of Moynaq. In 1968, to their big surprise, the Aral’s water started receding. First slowly, but since the 1980s quite rapidly. By 1970, the annual catch of more than 40,000 tonnes of fish dropped to 18,000. Over 50,000 people’s lives depended on this sea and canals were dug to reach the ever receding waterline, but by the 1990s the sea was already over 20 km away from the town. In the early 1980s, the fish disappeared due to the high water salinity and the commercial fishing industry collapsed. The airport, the rail-road yard, the shipyard and the muskrat breeding farm were closed.
What appears to be snow on the seabed is really salt and the prevailing dust and salt storms that carry a cloud of fertilizer and pesticides, including DDT, have resulted in devastatingly high levels of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses in and around Moynaq. Apart from life expectancies about 20 years less than the national average, residents suffer from anaemia (in 80% of pregnant women), cancer, high infant and maternal mortality rates, intestinal infections, gallstones, kidney stones, typhoid fever and hepatitis. Together with the gradual climate change accelerated by the evaporation of the Aral Sea, it has created an apocalyptic scene in the region. Most of the fishermen went away to work on cotton plantations and some started breeding camels. Many died and others left to escape the escalating health problems.
Adding to the general misery caused by the decline of the Aral, Vozrozhdeniya Island, once isolated in the middle of the Aral Sea, is now accessible overland. For forty years, this island hosted the Soviet Union’s most important facility for developing and testing biological weapons – Aralsk-7. Since 2001, the island has been connected to Uzbekistan’s mainland, allowing people and animals easy access to and from this contaminated area.
‘Dark tourists’ never stay long
The only vague hope for Moynaq was tourism – to showcase their graveyard of ships. There is a certain kind of tourist that is attracted to apocalyptic scenes, presumably for the thrill of feeling part of a surreal sci-fi movie. There are even words for this, ‘dark tourism’ or ‘disaster tourism’. But ‘dark tourists’ never stay more than a few hours. Some tour operators cancelled their day trips to Moynaq when the abandoned ships, encrusted with salt and agricultural chemicals, started causing illnesses and the black blizzards got more dangerous.
Moynaq’s residents might wait forever
Thanks to the ongoing efforts from two determined mayors, local villagers and a group of international journalists, Kazakhstan, the wealthier of the Central Asia nations, decided to correct the situation at least on its own side (the Small Aral). In 2005 the Kok-Aral dam, supported by the Kazakh government with financing from the World Bank, was completed and water from the Syr Darya is being trapped into the Small Aral again. Water levels have risen faster than expected, the lake’s salinity has decreased, fish stocks have increased and a new fish-processing plant is being built. Within 5 years, over 500 fishermen have returned to Aralsk and the local mayor’s endless efforts to bring his town back to life have paid off – “You know some men go to the bar after work” he says “to drink or chat up the girls. I just come and gaze at the sea”. In Aralsk, even though the town is still small and poor, there is reason to be hopeful.
But Moynaq is still in decline. There is less money, few environmental controls and little enthusiasm for improving the lives of local people. In June 2010, an international Oil and Gas Consortium announced that it had discovered a gas field in the dried-up Southern Aral seabed. Of course, for them an isolated, exposed seabed is ideal.
The few residents who have chosen to remain, still dream that the sea will return one day. They still sing songs about the Aral Sea, but the only fishermen in town are now on sign posts in the streets. Scientists and ecologists are certain that the Southern Aral will disappear completely by 2020, or even earlier.
On 13 July 2012, the UN in Uzbekistan launched a new initiative titled “Sustaining Livelihoods Affected by the Aral Sea Disaster”. Designed in close collaboration with the Uzbek Government and with $3.8 million allocated for implementation, it aims to improve the welfare of the local community of Moynaq and neighbouring areas by improving access to healthcare, clean water and gas. The programme also aims to introduce improved agricultural practices and to support entrepreneurial activities. We can only hope that this initiative bears some fruit.
See more of his photos taken in and around Moynaq
- In classical antiquity, the river was known as the Oxus. ‘Darya’ comes from the Old Persian word ‘drayah’, meaning sea or enormous river. [back]
- In 1939, over 160,000 labourers constructed the 270 km long Great Fergana Canal. Drawing water from the Syr Darya River, it was the Soviet Union’s first step to achieving cotton independence. [back]
- The Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was put forth by Joseph Stalin in October 1948, consisting of two major projects: a) planting a gigantic network (60,000km2) of shelterbelts (‘forest strips’) across the steppes of the southern Soviet Union; and b) building a network of irrigation canals which included changing the natural flow of rivers in the deserts of Central Asia. [back]
- The irrigation systems in Central Asia consist of open, earth-dug canals which lose a significant amount of water due to evaporation long before it reaches the cotton fields. [back]
- Moynaq’s muskrat breeding farm prepared up to 2 million muskrat skins every year. Living in the wetlands around the Aral, their numbers declined rapidly when the water started receding. [back]
- There is no running water in Moynaq. Drinking water in the region is often poisonous, due to increasing salinity, bacteriological contamination, and the presence of pesticides and heavy metals. [back]
- Over the past 60 years, summer temperatures have risen by 10 degrees Celsius and winter temperatures have decreased by 10 degrees Celsius. The growing season effectively changed from 200 to 170 days. [back]
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Image Sources Martijn Munneke. Het Aralmeer, via flickr
 Missaliona. Moynaq Placard, via Wikimedia Commons
 Azerbaijan International Magazine
 Shrinkage of the Aral Sea, 1960–99, via Encyclopaedia Britannica
 Earth Observatory NASA
 Earth Observatory NASA
 Neil Banas. Coastline, via flickr
 Postal block “Save the Aral Sea”, via Uzbekiston Pochtasi
 Tore Johan Birkeland. The last fisherman of Moynaq, via TrekEarth