Aral Sea's Return Revives Withered Villages

Puzblay Seytpembetov tends the camels he took on after the Aral shrank. Happy to fish again, he says,
Puzblay Seytpembetov tends the camels he took on after the Aral shrank. Happy to fish again, he says, "It's not the sea it used to be." (By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

TASTUPEK, Kazakhstan -- In the cool of one recent evening, after tending to his herd of 19 camels, Puzblay Seytpembetov and four companions pushed his small single-engine boat out onto the placid waters of the Aral Sea to lay fishnets. In the morning, he predicted, he would haul in flapping carp and pikeperch.

It is a daily task that until recently had seemed forever lost to the folly of humankind.

The Aral Sea, its sustaining rivers diverted to the irrigation of cotton fields, was for decades on an irrevocable course to death and desert. One of the 20th century's worst ecological disasters consumed more than half the sea's surface area and three-quarters of its volume, creating 13,000 square miles of dried-up wasteland. The shriveling sea bequeathed poisonous sandstorms, chronic health problems, dead fishing grounds and unemployment to this part of southern Kazakhstan.

But now the sea, or at least a rump part of it, is coming back, retracing its destructive retreat and offering villagers such as Seytpembetov nothing less than renewed life.

"It's good to be back on the water. I'm happy for that," said the weather-beaten fisherman, who turned to camel herding when the shoreline withdrew. "I'm happy for that. But it's not the sea it used to be. That's the truth."

Joop Stoutjesdijk, lead irrigation engineer at the World Bank, offers a similar view: "We have shown that even the worst environmental disaster can be reversed, somewhat. But we need to be realistic. Even if we dream of the whole Aral Sea, it can't come back."

There are in fact three seas now. In 1990, the relentless creep of sand cut the Aral into northern and southern parts, the "Lesser" and "Greater" seas. In 2003, with water levels still falling, the southern part split again, into two basins that in satellite photos look like a pair of atrophied lungs.

Tastupek and other villages are rejuvenating because an eight mile-long dam now blocks a narrow channel through which water drained freely from the northern sea to the southern. Water that the Syr Darya River delivers into the northern sea is building up, slowly expanding its shores. Completed in 2005, the $86 million Kok-Aral Dam project was financed by the World Bank and the Kazakh government.

The much larger southern parts of the Aral are still dying, though they get a bit of overflow from the dam. The Turkmen and Uzbek governments continue to draw most of the water from the Aral's second feeding river, the Amu Darya, to irrigate crops and sustain the lives of millions of people. Uzbekistan plans to explore the dried-up sea bed for oil.

The disaster began almost half a century ago because Soviet central planners in Moscow wanted cotton, lots of it. In the early 1960s, bureaucrats sitting 2,000 miles from the Aral Sea ordered that the amount of water diverted from the sea's two feeding rivers be dramatically increased to drive new production of that crop.

Irrigated areas in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan jumped from 6.4 million acres to 15.9 million acres over two decades. By the time the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which together measure more than 2,000 miles, reached the Aral Sea, they were reduced to trickles that spilled, lost, into the spreading sand. Blistering summer heat evaporated almost as much water from the sea as the rivers historically discharged into it.

As the size of the sea declined, its salinity spiked, killing off freshwater fish. Four indigenous species, including the small Aral Sea sturgeon, are now extinct. In 1975, for the first time, there was no fish catch at all in a sea that once was bountiful with sturgeon, carp, perch and barbel.

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