Aral Sea's Return Revives Withered Villages
Dam Begins to Diminish Ecological Disaster of Soviet-Era Irrigation

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.

"This was a very rich village, but when the fish died the people left," said Zhasan Kenzhenbayev, 38, pointing to abandoned homes in Tastupek.

Near the village of Zhambul, the detritus of a failed policy is startlingly visible. Six rusted fishing trawlers sit on a parched desert of sand, salt, scrub and broken seashells, ghostly reminders that this wind-swept expanse was once the bed of a great inland sea.

The village, sad and dusty, shimmers in the far distance, the water that once washed its edge now a mirage. Camels shade by the prows of the gutted boats -- one of which sports faded lettering announcing that it was called the "Alexei Leonov," after the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to walk in space, in 1965.

The region withered as a large fish-processing plant in Aralsk, the main northern port, closed along with fish-receiving stations by the shore. Muynoq, the main southern port about 270 miles away in Uzbekistan, was left high and dry. Entire villages were abandoned as people fled the encroaching dust bowl.

What had been the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, outranked only by the Caspian Sea and lakes Victoria and Superior, lost surface area as large as Maryland. By 2001, NASA had revised the sea's standing down to number nine.

"We had dry soil, bad water, all our plants disappeared, we couldn't grow vegetables," said Zhannat Makhambetova, 39, head of the Aral Tenizi Society, a local nongovernmental organization promoting fisheries. "It was a tragedy for people. Changes happened in nature but also in people. They lost their hope for this region, and they concentrated on any chance to leave."

For those who stayed, the growing desert spelled a health disaster. Fierce dust storms kicked up not just sand and salt, but also chemicals and pesticides that had washed into the sea from intensive farming along the two rivers. Cancers, respiratory diseases, anemia, miscarriages, and kidney and liver diseases in the region soared, according to Kazakh statistics and local doctors.

Worse, the Aral Sea contained Vozroshdeniye Island, a testing ground for Soviet biological weapons, including agents such as bubonic plague and anthrax. The island, where live anthrax spores were discovered in 1999, joined the mainland as the water retreated. The United States has since helped decontaminate 10 anthrax burial sites on Vozroshdeniye.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, locals tried to save the sea themselves, building a sand barrier that dammed the tiny channel that conveys water from the northern to the southern parts of the sea. It washed away. An April 1996 storm destroyed a second attempted dike.

But the effort showed that the northern sea could be rejuvenated. The World Bank and the Kazakh government joined forces to build a permanent dam. That construction was accompanied by improvements along the Syr Darya River, where as much as 40 percent of the water was lost because of poorly built irrigation canals and other infrastructure.

Since the dam's completion in 2005, the surface area of the northern sea has expanded from 1,440 square miles to more than 2,000. Fish stocks have slowly been replenished with the help of a Danish environmental group; sturgeon will be reintroduced to the sea this year.

Aralsk port, though still dry, is showing signs of revival, and a new fish-processing plant handled 2,000 tons of fish last year. The number of houses occupied in Tastupek village has jumped from eight to 17. The return of fish to the local diet, coupled with improved drinking water and the ability to grow vegetables, has brought some health benefits, according to Marat Turemuratov, a doctor in Aralsk. Residents' health has also been helped by improvements in the microclimate, which now has fewer sandstorms and more rain.

"For the first time in a long time, I feel some optimism," Turemuratov said.

Engineers say that a second phase of the dam project, if it is financed, could bring water all the way to the Aral's former northern shores, including to Aralsk. Work might begin in 2009, but the design of the project and whether it can restore the sea to its former depths remain a matter of debate.

The men of Zhambul for years drove eight miles along a rutted track on the former seabed to reach their boats. In the past two years the journey has shortened as the water has advanced.

"We believe the water will come back to us, right to the village," said Kurmanay Kopzhavov, 34, a fishing inspector who lives in Zhambul. "We have a future again."

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