The Lovely Sea
In the 1960s, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers were diverted by the Soviets to irrigate cotton plantations. Deprived of its two main tributaries, the shores of the Aral Sea, which spanned from the North in Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan at its Southern tip, began to recede—taking with it the fishing industry, as well as much of the sustainable agriculture of both countries. The damming also left behind miles of desert where fresh water had once flourished, with sandstorms now becoming frequent during the increasingly hot, dry summers. And what remained of the waters of the Aral was turned into an hyper-salinated pool of agricultural pesticides, killing off most remaining fish and surrounding wildlife as well. Health problems and unemployment pushed droves of people into neighboring cities and towns.
In 2001, though, after years of failed attempts by locals to construct a manmade dam, the World Bank together with the Kazakh government responded with the thirteen kilometer Dike Kokaral, an $86 million project, designed to raise the water level of the Northern Aral Sea by containing flow into the severely diminished Southern part of the Sea. Extirpated species of fish were reintroduced back, and a Danish NGO donated fishing nets to local villagers.
The fishermen of Tactubek, a recently thriving fishing town is beginning to come back to life with many families moving back to the small village. Up before the sun, fishermen surface from their handmade bungalows carved from the sand. Jury-rigged with electricity and sunroofs, these homes are nothing more than humps dotting the beach with antanae-like chimneys. The fishermen mix their chai with Russian Vodka and head out in hopes of heavy catches—and substantial earnings from the fishmongers sent from Aralsk.
Aralsk, once a strategic port town, at the Northern tip of the Aral Sea, thrived on the trading of commodities between Russia and Central Asia at large. Although the dam has brought the shoreline to within 25 kilometers from what was once the Aralsk Harbor, one would never know it. Catch levels are also still very low, with yearly production hovering around 10,000 metric tons projected for 2012. The main fishing plant, a sleek new structure, sits behind a large wrought iron gate, seemingly out of service for the moment. Just across the sandy road, camels graze around a pool of water crested with brown foam and ringed with garbage. From here the sea seems far from returned. Though brides still ride around in wedding cars in this traditional marriage town, there is something about Aralsk that has died. It is a beach town with no sea, a surreal endless expanse of sand. Women push their baby carriages through mounds of white grain sand; abandoned boats dot the harbor, half-submerged in shallow ponds. One can’t help but wonder how Aralsk will respond when and if the sea actually does return. More than a generation has grown up here in the arid desert; they have never known life on the water.