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Aral Sea makes gradual comeback in Kazakhstan

The damage caused in Soviet times persists in neighboring countries,

November 01, 2009|Peter Leonard | Leonard writes for the Associated Press

AKESPE, KAZAKHSTAN — Standing on the shore under the relentless Central Asian sun, Badarkhan Prikeyev drew on a cigarette and squinted into the distance as one fishing boat after another returned with the day's catch.

Until recently, this spot where the fish merchant was standing, in a man-made desert at the edge of nowhere, represented one of the world's worst environmental calamities.

Now fresh water was lapping at his boots, proclaiming an environmental miracle -- the return of the Aral Sea.

The Aral was once the world's fourth-largest body of fresh water, covering an area the size of Ireland. But then the nations around it became part of the Soviet Union. With their passion for planned economics and giant, nature-reversing projects, the communists diverted the rivers that fed the inland sea and used them to irrigate vast cotton fields. The result: The Aral shrank by 90% to a string of isolated stretches of water.

The catastrophe "is unprecedented in modern times," says Philip Micklin, a geography professor at Western Michigan University who has studied the Aral Sea for years.

And even now, nearly two decades after the Soviet Union broke up, the damage is far from reversed. Satellite images taken this year show that one section of the sea has shrunk by 80% in the last three years alone. Uzbekistan, which controls three-quarters of the Aral, has given up trying. The rescue has happened on Kazakhstan's portion, and it is striking.

Aralsk is a port that ended up 60 miles inland. But now, a dam built by the World Bank and Kazakh government is slowly resurrecting a small part of the sea, reviving the fishing industry and bringing hope to an area that some expected would simply dry up and blow away in the fierce, salty winds.

The returning water has crept to within 15.5 miles of Aralsk, also known as Aral, and the World Bank estimates it could reach the port in about six years.

Kazakhs can hardly wait. "Good News -- The Sea is Coming Back," declares a sign at the entrance to Aralsk.

In some areas, the water is already lapping at the derelict hulls of ships that had been stranded far inland, heightening the ghostly aura of the landscape.

"Finally, there is hope and a life to be made here." said Prikeyev, 49, waiting for his fishermen near the village of Akespe, 55 miles west of Aralsk. "Work is available for anyone who wants it."

This summer his boats returned laden with heaving sacks of pike and carp.

The miracle is a small one compared with the damage that will probably never be undone. Uzbekistan has chosen to keep the lucrative cotton industry going, and to prospect for gas and oil under the exposed seabed.

But where the sea is being saved, the method has proved elegantly simple.

An $88-million project launched in 2001 resulted in a dam to channel the waters of the Syr Darya river into the Kazakh section, rather than let them flow south and go to waste.

The five states of former Soviet Central Asia are in broad agreement about the need to coordinate use of the region's two life-giving rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In practice, however, little real collaboration has occurred, meaning certain death for large parts of the sea.

The centerpiece of the Aral salvation project is the concrete Kokaral dam. It's an unremarkable-looking structure that can be walked across in less than a minute, but its impact has been dramatic.

The rising water level has noticeably cooled the climate and lowered salinity enough to sustain freshwater fish.

According to the World Bank, the catch of freshwater fish reached around 2,000 tons in 2007, up from 52 tons in 2004.

For the first time in years, many Kazakhs living near the Aral feel they have a future.

"My father grew up in a fishing village and catching fish is what he did all his life," said Prikeyev, who oversees a crew of more than 100 fishermen and others during the high season in summer.

After the sea began to dry up in the 1960s, villages on it withered as people migrated to the cities for jobs. The surrounding region became a searing dust bowl and fishing, one of the few sources of steady employment, collapsed. Prikeyev tried running a chain of small shops, failed and went back to fishing, only to find the fish disappearing.

The land became a desert, baking in the day, freezing at night. Salt blown inland off the exposed seabed unleashed a scourge of respiratory diseases in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The drying-out has severely damaged plant and animal life and created huge salt and dust storms that can travel 300 miles, Micklin said in an e-mail interview.

The payoff was a bonanza of cotton to supply the Soviet market as well as Cuba and the communist countries of Europe. The fishermen paid the price. By the mid-1970s, Aral catches were down by about three-quarters from the roughly 40,000 tons before the drying. Eventually fishing on an industrial level ceased altogether.

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