MUINAK, Uzbekistan — The old man roams what used to be the floor of the Aral Sea, coaxing a ram, a goat and a cow in search of food in what is now relentless desert.
Not far away is the rusting hull of the fishing boat that three decades ago he sailed high above, on the surface of bountiful waters. The marooned wreck stands askew amid a ghostly fleet anchored in salty dunes.
Stopping his tiny herd in a patch of desert grass, he encounters a stranger who inquires about the sea.
"I can no longer imagine any sea out there," replies Sanginkik Saktaganov, turning his lean, weathered face north toward the horizon where the shore disappeared. "I don't think it will ever come back."
It is a pitiful epitaph for Central Asia's dying fountain of life, uttered from a harsh and poisoned landscape that is the region's costliest legacy of Soviet rule. The presidents of the five countries dependent on the sea have joined to lobby for worldwide help, but they have received only modest commitments and even less relief.
"You cannot fill the Aral Sea with tears," says an Uzbek poem.
Until 1960, the Aral was the world's fourth-largest lake and produced 160 tons of fish a day, much of it hauled in boats like Saktaganov's to a huge cannery in this onetime coastal city.
Then, in one of humankind's cruelest assaults on nature, Soviet engineers began diverting the two Aral tributaries into the desert to irrigate the world's largest cotton belt.
Today the sea has shriveled to a third of its former volume and split into near-lifeless lagoons, its nearest shore 30 miles from here. The Aral watershed, which sustains most of Central Asia's 54 million people, is poisoned.
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers wash from irrigated cotton fields into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, polluting much of the region's drinking water, its soil and the sea. Toxic salts and dust blown off the exposed sea bottom by blinding windstorms turn everything grayish-brown.
Millions of people are sickened by the air and water, and impoverished by the loss of fish and fertile land. The drying of the Aral, whose water volume moderated the weather, has brought Sahara-like extremes of hot and cold to the valleys nearby, cutting the growing season by two months.
Worst of all, the Soviet Union, which created this mess, is not around to clean it up. The five Central Asian republics that emerged from the Soviet collapse in late 1991 lack the resources to cope.
Their most ambitious plans for the Aral watershed stop short of reviving the sea or even halting its shrinkage.
The Caspian Sea, 370 miles west of here, is rising. But building a canal and pumping the spillover to the Aral would cost $280 billion, and officials say that's utopian. Reversing one of Russia's northward-flowing Siberian rivers toward the Aral--an old Soviet idea--is rejected as ecocidal.
Some environmentalists insist that drastic cutbacks in cotton growing could save enough water to bring back the sea.
But weak economies and growing populations put national leaders under pressure to use any leftover water to grow more food. Before they can even think about the sea, officials say, the region must cope with the public health and economic calamities that have come in the wake of the Aral's depletion.
"All the parties recognize that restoring the sea to its 1960 level or anything approaching that is just not feasible," said Peter Whitford, manager of the World Bank's Aral basin aid project. "But a lot more can be done to meet the human needs in the disaster zone and to put land and water management on a more rational footing."
Reacting to a March 1993 appeal by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the World Bank helped these countries draft 19 such projects--expected to cost $450 million over several years--and organized a June 1994 donors conference in Paris.
The results were disappointing. Donor nations pledged $31 million of the $40 million asked for a one-year start-up phase and delivered just $15.7 million--mostly for studies by Western consultants.
"So many round tables, seminars and conferences, so many reports published on problems we've known about for years!" exclaimed geologist Gaip Khudainsasar, pointing to piles of volumes in his cluttered office in Turkmenistan. "Yet the Aral keeps shrinking, and the ecology of the basin has not improved."
While environmentalists echo his frustration, some small improvements are underway.
On the desolate shore of a small lake near Muinak, four bulldozers kick up clouds of dust as they flatten the sandy ground for seedlings. Workmen are laying irrigation pipes to the new forest from the nearby Amu Darya.
Bekullah Davletiyarov, a 41-year-old hydraulic engineer, wore an immaculate white suit to inspect his U.N.-financed project, the first of a series of "green belts" that will shield the Amu Darya delta from poisonous Aral dust.