A sea returns to life, a sea slowly dies

In this tale of two halves Paul Lauener reports from Kazakhstan on the fate of the Aral Sea as one part makes what could be the Earth’s greatest environmental comeback and another turns into an ecological disaster.

Just a decade ago, it looked like the Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to divert the Aral Sea’s feeder rivers to farming had turned an area the size of Ireland into a ship graveyard, with no fish and no jobs.

But now, five years after the construction of a dam, fresh river water is again filling the northern part, known as the Small Aral Sea, and even the elusive local fish are returning in force.

This is spurring hope that Kazakhstan’s Aral region can regain its former fishing glory – once it even supplied fish to Lenin.

‘There wasn’t anything before. It was a dead sea. Whole villages and towns moved away, but now they’re coming back’

‘There’s everything now,’ says Batyrhan Trekeyev, as overflow water thunders through the Kokaral dam behind him from the Small Aral Sea. He now has a fleet of 50 fishing boats and employs 150 workers. ‘There wasn’t anything before. It was a dead sea. Whole villages and towns moved away, but now they’re coming back.’

Up to 450 other fishers are back making a living on these once barren waters and new fish-processing plants are being built.

The return of the water has also heralded a dramatic reduction in respiratory problems and throat cancer in the region, according to Aral’s main hospital, as large sections of seabed that had turned into dustbowls have become submerged again.

Journey of hope: indigenous fish are back and thriving in the Small Aral Sea.

Paul Lauener

These improvements are in stark contrast to the Large Aral Sea further south, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited in April this year. ‘It is clearly one of the worst environmental disasters of the world,’ he said of the Large Aral Sea, which has shrunk by 90 per cent since the Soviet Union diverted the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers to cotton production in the 1960s.

This human-engineered catastrophe of evaporating seas and small unfishable patches of water is what the Small Aral Sea is fighting back from. And curiously it is a large dam project – the Kokaral – made possible by funding from the World Bank, a body not exactly renowned for its environmental credentials, which is helping it win that fight.

Unlike many other dams which have caused environmental devastation, such as India’s Narmada dam which lost World Bank funding after international furore, the Kokaral project is simply filling in an empty seabed as locals wait in former coastal towns for the fish and the jobs to return.

Experts are not only amazed at how quickly the water has reached the target depth of 42 metres, taking only a year after the 2005 completion of the dam, but also how swiftly native fish have restocked the sea.

Before the Kokaral barrier, the only fish which could survive in the highly salty waters left by decades of evaporation was the flounder, an alien species introduced by Aral Tenizi, a Danish NGO, in the late 1990s to provide locals with something to fish.

‘It was a surprise for everyone how the local fish came back,’ Bakhytzhamal Zhugunisova, acting director of Aral Tenizi, said. After just a year, the Small Aral Sea was so full of fish that it was split into 10 licensed fishing districts to regulate the catch, which is now an estimated 80 per cent local fish, compared to pre-dam years when only flounders were caught. The flounder has now become smaller and less common as the water’s salinity has declined and native fish have thrived.

This is raising the usual questions of sustainability: a locally estimated 10,000 tonnes of fish are caught a year now, dwarfing the 1,200 tonnes caught in 2006, according to Aral Tenizi. Although governmental efforts such as fish hatcheries, summer fishing prohibitions and strict quotas are in place, the estimated catch is up to four times more than the official 2010 quota of 2,810 tonnes. With fishers only earning between $7 and $30 a day, they catch as much as they can.

The map indicates the location and original extent of the Aral Sea (circled). The satellite image immediately below shows what remains in 2010.

Glory days

The catch now attracts big money, with a brand new 10 million dollar fish-processing plant already built in the town of Aralsk and another being constructed in the nearby town of Karaterin. This represents clear progress for the fishing industry as much of the produce is still sold directly on the coast to local markets.

‘We’re going to sell to Europe, Ukraine, Russia. It will be like before,’ enthuses Batyrhan, who has the biggest fishing organization in the region. Batyrhan’s hopes are up that the Aralsk region can relive its Soviet heyday when the town of Aralsk earned personal thanks from Lenin for sending 14 trucks of fish to famished Russians. This was a time when it was a busy port complete with pier, cranes and towering fishing boats, a period of relative prosperity which halted when the sea dried out.

Aralsk’s older residents remember this fondly but with sadness. ‘Practically the whole town used to work here,’ 63 year-old Zauresh Alibekova said, as she walked along the seabed next to a broken wooden post – the only remains of the old pier – where armies of workers used to sort through fresh fish brought by great fishing vessels. She used to help her mother in the fish factory after school. ‘When we were children, we would run down to this spot and bathe every day,’ she said. ‘People would come all the way from Russia on their holidays.’

Now, as Zauresh walks across the sea floor and gets her heels stuck in the mud, she looks around to see that the old port is a dried-out basin with rusting hulks of what were once great icebreakers. The nearest Aral Sea coast is still several kilometres away.

The land of no return

Marina Grishina by the waters of the Small Aral Sea. The island of her childhood holidays is now a dustbowl.

Paul Lauener

Although the Kokaral dam means life and jobs for the Small Aral Sea community, it is just another nail in the coffin for the Large Aral Sea on the other side, now only receiving small amounts of overflow water from the Syrdarya river via the Small Aral Sea and the dam. Even before the dam, the Large Aral Sea needed far more water than this one river could provide.

Visitors who drive along the vast flat seabed for a couple of hours from the former coastal town of Karaterin soon find themselves in an area resembling a desiccated planet. As the wind picks up, the salt, dust and sand whip up in the air, reducing visibility to a few metres, producing a mirage of a moving sea. Waves of sand skirt across the seashell-covered seabed.

‘This is my lost childhood. I used to run down this hill and jump into the water over there,’ says Marina Grishina, pointing to a coastal cliff, which now towers out of the parched seabed.

The loss of water in the Large Aral Sea has caused chaos to local biodiversity and left former islands marooned. Barsakelmes, which translates as ‘the land of no return’ in Kazakh, is one such place. Its lonely coast now juts out of the dead sea around it.

Once a protected nature reserve with horses, eagles and wild deer, it is now almost empty of life as the animals scattered far and wide once the water retreated. As the sea around it became a shallow swamp in the early 1990s, its inhabitants were evacuated by plane.

One middle-aged man refused to leave. Valentin Skorutskiy could not bear to leave his mother’s side – she had been buried on the island. He was discovered years later, slumped over a desk with his head in his hands. His body was later buried next to his mother’s grave, where it remains.

‘This is my lost childhood,’ says Marina Grishina, a former summer resident of Barsakelmes who knew Valentin, with tears in her eyes, as she steps onto the former island for the first time in over 20 years. The last time she was here, in 1987, it was a 12-hour journey by ship from Aralsk. This time, instead of sailing or flying, she has hitched a lift in a 4x4 with a New Internationalist journalist.

‘I used to run down this hill and jump into the water over there,’ she says, pointing to a coastal cliff, which now towers out of the parched seabed.

Her childhood holiday house is now a shell, surrounded by rusting tractors and squeaky gates, banging in the wind.

The cost of change

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on the leaders of the Central Asian states to co-operate on repairing some of the damage to the Large Aral Sea, but prospects look grim.

The organization created to rescue the dying sea, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), has to balance the rival water demands of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. With 48 million people living in the Aral Sea basin, projected to increase to 75 million in 2025, water demand in the region has already exceeded available resources. To add to this strain, 60 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and practises irrigated farming, often with inefficient water systems.

From 1960 to 2005, water availability per capita in Central Asia declined from 8.2 to 2.55 thousand cubic metres per year and by 2025 it is predicted to reach the critical point of 1.7 thousand cubic metres per year. Direct water consumption is but a small part of this amount; factored in is all the water required for providing the goods a person consumes.

‘Saving the Large Aral is an issue for the long perspective,’ according to Assel Kenzheakhmetova, a specialist at IFAS’s Information and Analysis Centre. ‘The current volumes of river flow do not allow complete recovery of this part of the Aral Sea.’

Many others believe it is simply too late.

‘It is impossible now,’ says Andrey Kostianoy, a professor of the Institute of Oceanology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. ‘Theoretically it’s possible, but it will cost so much that there is no sense in it.’

The Aral Sea as a whole shrank in size from 66,100 square kilometres in 1961 to only 10,400 in 2008. The eastern part of the Large Aral Sea almost completely dried out this year. Kostianoy believes this part will totally disappear within the next few months, leaving two distinct bodies of water: the Small Aral Sea in the north and a remaining deep part in the west known as the Western Large Aral Sea. ‘[This was] one of the largest ecological disasters of the 20th century,’ he believes.

He is much more positive when it comes to the prospects for the Small Aral Sea, mainly thanks to the Kokaral barrier. Kostianoy and IFAS specialists believe that a new taller dam could even bring the water back up to the coast of Aralsk.

‘The dam so far has been a limited success,’ says Aitbai Kusherbaiuli, Chief Engineer of the Kokaral project, standing proudly next to his dam as music blares in the background to celebrate the local ‘Day of the Fish’ festival. ‘But in the eyes of the locals it will only be a total success when the water is running right up to Aralsk’s port again.’

IFAS is currently deciding whether to achieve this by building a new dam or by connecting the Small Aral Sea to nearby Saryshyganak Bay and then filling the bay with a canal from the Syrdarya river. As the bay is at a higher level than the Small Aral Sea, the water from the bay would gradually fill the sea, allowing it to once again reach Aralsk.

This system would better mix the fresh river water with the salty sea water and could help reduce salinity, giving a further boost to native fish stocks.

Jilkibay Aryngaziev, 70, who fished these seas before they began to shrink in the 1960s, agrees there is a need for a second dam. But his belief in the Aral Sea goes deeper, into the realms of local legend.

‘About 250 years ago, we had the same problem,’ he explains. ‘Both rivers were fully flowing into the sea, but the sea receded by 100 kilometres nonetheless. All of a sudden, in just one night, it came back.’

‘That’s a natural Earth phenomenon, like a tsunami. We’ll have that kind of phenomenon again,’ he adds confidently. ‘The whole sea will come back, like before. I have no doubt.’

Paul Lauener is a freelance journalist based in London, having spent the last few years working with the New York Times, Reuters and AP in France, London and Moscow. He specialises in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Big bad dams

The Kokaral dam is a rare success story. Big dam projects usually bring human misery and environmental devastation.

Three Gorges Dam, China

The largest and most notorious dam in the world. It displaced 1.2 million people (expected to reach 4 million by 2020), intentionally flooding 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages. The project was beset by corruption and has resulted in frequent landslides, heavier pollution and rapid deforestation.

Gibe 3 Dam, Ethiopia

Construction of this $1.7 billion project began in 2006, violating the country’s own environmental laws. Its completion would mean the collapse of the ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and the world’s largest desert lake – Kenya’s Lake Turkana – upon which 500,000 indigenous people depend.

Bakun Dam, Malaysia

Is projected to put around 700 square kilometres of virgin rainforest and prime farmland under water. 10,000 indigenous people have been forced to leave their ancestral lands and abandon their lifestyles.

HidroAysén dams, Chile

Thousands of acres of old growth forest would need to be cut to make way for a 2,500km transmission line from pristine Patagonia to Chile’s northern cities. Half of Chileans oppose the project, which would condemn the Baker and Pascua rivers.

Giedre Steikunaite

Sources: International Rivers, BankTrack.org, BBC.