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Death and re-birth of a lake: How water came back to the dry Aral Sea

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The once-world’s fourth biggest lake was thought gone forever and a source of decades of environmental disaster. But something is changing.

16-06-2017-aral-sea-13-590.jpg [Related Image]
Villager Zhanabek Ismagambetov, who was born in 1973, cuts a fish as his niece Dariga looks on in the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. © REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth biggest lake, is most likely gone forever, its death having brought about decades of environmental disaster.

However, a project to salvage its northern part appears to have succeeded as commercial fishing is once again viable in the adjacent Kazakh towns and villages.

‘With the water gone, we started doing whatever we could to survive’ – former fisherman Sagnai Zhurimbetov

The Aral was nearly destroyed as a result of the Soviet Union’s plan to boost cotton production by diverting Syr Darya and Amu Darya, the two rivers feeding it, to irrigate the desert.

Construction of irrigation facilities on the rivers began in the 1940s and by the 1960s the coast line was receding by about three metres a year, said 84-year-old Sagnai Zhurimbetov, who had worked as a fisherman on the Aral for 56 years and now lives in the former port town.

‘With the water gone, we started doing whatever we could (to survive),’ Zhurimbetov said. ‘Teams of fishermen travelled across Kazakhstan, to other lakes.’

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Former fisherman Sagnai Zhurimbetov, 84, holds his 10-month-old great-grandson Ykhlas at his home in the former sea town of Aral, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. ‘With the water gone, we started doing whatever we could (to survive),’ Zhurimbetov said. ‘Teams of fishermen travelled across Kazakhstan, to other lakes.’ REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Others took up animal breeding – camels now graze on what used to be seabed near Karateren village – or left altogether. Throughout the area, most of the soil is covered with a white salty crust, which makes farming a tough job.

By the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Aral had split into several smaller bodies of water and Kazakhstan focused on salvaging its northern part which lies fully within its territory, others being shared with Uzbekistan.

The idea was simple – build a dam separating the so-called North Aral Sea from the drying-up remains of the southern part and increase water flow from Syr Darya.

The dam was completed in 2005 and over the following decade annual fish catch nearly quintupled in the Kyzylorda region, according to official statistics.

The coast line, which had once receded as much as 100 kilometres from the port town of Aral, is now 20-25 kilometres away as it fluctuates seasonally.

Some villages are once again within walking distance from the lake while the water has become much less salty, allowing a greater diversity of fish to thrive.

Today, fishermen in Karateren – which is slowly growing in population – mostly catch bream, carp and pikeperch, the latter often exported.

The return of commercial fishing has also created jobs at processing facilities where fish is sorted and frozen. Some families earn their living by importing and selling motorboats.

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A local resident Galymzhan works at a fish sorting factory in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. Bogen, populated by some 1,000 people, is a former fishermen's village that used to be on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Still, the boats which fishermen on the Aral use today to check their nets are tiny compared with trawlers whose carcasses dot the former seabed, waiting to be picked apart for scrap metal.

‘The small Aral is not a real sea,’ says Zhurimbetov. ‘The old one used to have waves 7 metres high.’

Source: Reuters

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A boat is seen on the shore of the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
An abandoned ship lies next to a salinated part of the Aral Sea coastline near the village of Akespe, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Akkenzhe Abdiyeva plays dombra during a dinner at home in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. Bogen, populated by some 1,000 people, is a former fishermen's village that used to be on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A girl tends cows in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. Bogen, populated by some 1,000 people, is a former fishermen's village that used to be on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Camels graze next to an abandoned fuel station in the village Zhalanash, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. Zhalanash, where some 700 people live, is close to what used to be a cove (small bay) housing many fishing vessels and later became a tourist attraction known as ‘the ship graveyard’. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A student attends a lesson in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. Bogen, populated by some 1,000 people, is a former fishermen's village that used to be on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Boldai Zhaksylykova (second right) and her family members pray after dinner at home in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. Bogen, populated by some 1,000 people, is a former fishermen's village that used to be on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A fisherman pours water out of his boat on the shore of the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Kenzhibek and his son Ernur stand next to their camels in the village of Zhalanash, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. Zhalanash, where some 700 people live, is close to what used to be a cove (small bay) housing many fishing vessels and later became a tourist attraction known as ‘the ship graveyard’. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
A sign showing a ship and a village name are seen at a sunset outside the village Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Fishermen ride in a truck to collect fish from a boat in shallow water by the Aral Sea, outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Fishermen sail a boat on the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
An abandoned ship lies between the coastline of the Aral Sea and sand dunes near the village of Akespe, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Erali Serimbetov, who was born in 1961, sits in front of his house surrounded by dunes at the remote part of the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, home to some 250 people, and Karateren, inhabited by about 150, used to be dominated by fishermen until the water receded too far away – but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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