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In Kazakhstan a stretch of the former seabed has become a salt pan laced with cotton-farming chemicals

Sins of the Aral Sea

For millennia the Aral Sea reigned as one of the planet’s largest inland bodies of water, straddling what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Today its decline serves as a cautionary tale.

This story appears in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“This is what the end of the world looks like,” says Yusup Kamalov, sweeping his hand toward the scrub-covered desert stretching before us. “If we ever have Armageddon, the people of Karakalpakstan are the only ones who will survive, because we are already living it.”

From our perch atop this sandy bluff in northern Uzbekistan, the view could be of just about any desert—that is, if it weren’t for the mounds of seashells and the half dozen marooned fishing boats rusting into the sand. This spot was once the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Aral Sea, which up until the 1960s was the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, covering some 26,000 square miles—an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Behind us lies the town of Muynoq, formerly a thriving fishing village with a sprawling cannery that even as recently as the 1980s processed thousands of tons of fish annually. Fifty years ago the southern shore of the Aral was right where we stand; now it lies 55 miles away to the northwest.

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The History Museum in Aral, Kazakhstan, displays a preserved bream—on of several species that vanished in the 1980s, when the once bountiful Aral Sea shriveled and divided into separate bodies . On the Kazakh side, a dam has revived fish. On the Usbek side, only intertebrates remain.

Kamalov has brought me here to see what’s left of the once bountiful sea. He’s a 64-year-old senior researcher in wind energy at the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. He’s also an environmental activist, chairing the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and Amu Darya. Heavyset, with a flowing mane of white hair, Kamalov descends from an influential Uzbek family: His father was a renowned historian during the Soviet era, and his grandfather was the last elected khan, or leader, of the semiautonomous republic of Karakalpakstan before it became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the 1930s.

His country doesn’t yet have a single wind farm, but that hasn’t dampened Kamalov’s enthusiasm for his chosen professional field. His obsession with wind has led him to build two hang gliders, which he flies from a local hilltop to better understand the air currents.

“I want to know the wind like a bird does,” he says. But his interests extend to all parts of the environment, and he has taken time off from his research to show me the remnants of what was once a massive body of water teeming with life and, perhaps more ominously, what the retreating waters left behind.

The Aral Sea straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and for thousands of years was fed by two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Having no outflow, the sea’s water level was maintained through a natural balance between inflow and evaporation.

When Alexander the Great conquered this territory in the fourth century B.C., these rivers already had a long history of providing lifeblood to Central Asia. For centuries the Aral Sea and its vast deltas sustained an archipelago of settlements along the Silk Road that connected China to Europe. These ancient populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other ethnicities prospered as farmers, fishermen, herders, merchants, and craftsmen.

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A man prunes an elm tree in Kazankethen, Uzbekistan. Such drought-tolerant trees still line some of the dry irrigation ditches that once diverted water to enormous cotton farms from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.

Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. became part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations. But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert.

“Up until the early 1960s the system was fairly stable,” explained Philip Micklin, when I reached him by phone. As a geography professor at Western Michigan University, Micklin spent his career studying water management issues in the former Soviet Union and made about 25 trips to Central Asia, starting in the early 1980s. Over the years he watched the Aral Sea’s demise firsthand. “When they added even more irrigation canals in the 1960s, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “Suddenly the system was no longer sustainable. They knew what they were doing, but what they didn’t realize was the full range of the ecological consequences—and the rapidity with which the sea would vanish.”

By 1987 the Aral’s water level had dropped drastically, splitting it into two bodies of water: a northern sea, which lies in Kazakhstan, and a larger southern sea lying within Karakalpakstan. In 2002 the southern sea got so low that it too split into separate eastern and western seas. Last July the eastern sea dried up entirely.

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Each of these boats used to haul in tons of fish every year. The fleet has been rusting near the former Uzbek port of Muynoq since the Aral dried up here in the 1980s,

The only bright spot in this dire saga is the recent recovery of the northern sea. In 2005, with funding from the World Bank, the Kazakhs completed an eight-mile dam on the northern sea’s southern shore, creating a fully separate body of water, fed by the Syr Darya. Since the dam was built, the northern sea and its fishery have come back much more quickly than expected. But the dam has cut off the southern sea from one of its crucial water sources, sealing its fate.

“The saddest and most frustrating thing about the tragedy of the Aral Sea is that the Soviet officials at the Ministry of Water who designed the irrigation canals knew full well that they were dooming the Aral,” Kamalov says. From the 1920s through the 1960s, water officials often cited the work of Russia’s most famous climatologist, Aleksandr Voeikov (1842-1916), who once referred to the Aral Sea as a “useless evaporator” and a “mistake of nature.” Bluntly put, the Soviet wisdom of the day contended that crops were more valuable than fish.

The cotton harvests continue today. Each fall about two million of Uzbekistan’s 29 million citizens “volunteer” to pick millions of bushels of the nation’s cotton crop. The country virtually shuts down while government employees, schoolchildren, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, and even senior citizens are bused to the fields to reap their daily quota.

“Uzbekistan is one of the only places we know of in the world where forced labor is actually organized and enforced by the government, and the president himself is acting as a trafficker in chief,” said Steve Swerdlow, director of the Central Asia bureau of Human Rights Watch.

“Can you imagine,” says Kamalov, turning to me from the front seat of our Land Cruiser, “that 40 years ago the water was 30 meters deep [98 feet] right here.”

Our driver points through the windshield to a thick brown cloud blowing across the desert. A minute ago there was nothing there; now I’m being told to quickly roll up my window. Seconds later we’re engulfed in noxious dust that quickly infiltrates the vehicle. The dust stings my eyes, and I can taste the heavy salt, which instantly makes me sick to my stomach.

This whirlwind is but one of many ecological consequences that the Soviet planners didn’t predict. “The geochemists thought that as the sea dried, a hard crust of sodium chloride would form on the surface and there wouldn’t be salt storms,” Micklin said. “They were dead wrong.”

Besides toxic levels of sodium chloride, the dust is laced with pesticides such as DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, and phosalone—all known carcinogens. The chemicals have worked their way into every level of the food chain.

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"My driver in Kazakhstan told me about a hot spring in a dried-up village called Aqbasty," says photographer Carolyn Drake. "So we made a long trek around the northern sea to see it. The spring was basically the town center, with people coming and going all day [above]. All the families here have herds of livestock that graze on the dried seabed and on the steppe west of the sea."

Today Karakalpakstan registers esophageal cancer rates 25 times as high as the world average. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a major problem, and respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and immunological disorders are widespread.

Perhaps even more frightening is the revelation that the Aral Sea once was home to a secret Soviet biological weapons testing facility. Located on Vozrozhdeniya Island—which, now that the sea is gone, is no longer an island—the facility was the main test site for the Soviet military’s Microbiological Warfare Group. Thousands of animals were shipped to the island, where they were subjected to anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and other biological agents.

The U.S. State Department, concerned that rusting drums of anthrax could fall into the wrong hands, sent a cleanup team there in 2002. No biological agents have been found in the dust since then, but sporadic outbreaks of plague afflict the surrounding region.

As we continue toward the sea, we pass dozens of oil and natural gas rigs that punctuate what is otherwise a brittle, pancake-flat desert of sun-bleached sand. According to Kamalov, the rigs started appearing as soon as the sea began to recede, and each year a few more are erected. “Obviously, they provide a massive disincentive for the government to do anything that might cause the sea to refill,” he says.

For hours we bump along on rutted dirt tracks. Other than the white sand and the blue sky, the only colors I can make out are the pale green of lonesome saxaul bushes and the pink of occasional tamarisk shrub blossoms.

Finally a silvery line sparkles on the horizon, growing larger until we arrive at a Chinese encampment of several yurts set up on the edge of the sea. They are here to harvest Artemia parthenogenetica, a type of brine shrimp that is the only living creature left in the sea. When the Aral was healthy, the water was brackish, with a salinity level of 10 grams per liter (the world’s oceans range from 33 to 37 grams per liter). Today the salinity exceeds 110 grams per liter, making it deadly to every species of fish.

Near the shoreline the muddy sand is wet, like a beach with an ebbing tide. But the Aral doesn’t have a perceptible tide—what we’re seeing is the sea actually receding before our eyes.

“Whatever you do, don’t stop,” yells Kamalov, as he plows through the knee-deep quicksand, wearing only his underwear. I plod along behind until the water reaches my knees. I try to swim, but my legs float up to the surface, making it impossible to kick. “Just lie on your back,” says Kamalov. I do, and the sensation is like that of lying on a pool floaty. My head rests on a water pillow. I hardly break the surface.

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Villagers celebrate at a wedding in Tastubek, where life is improving. The Kokaral Dam supplies electricity, and fish species that once sustained the Kazakh village are returning. But camel farms, which replaced fishing trawlers 35 years ago, drive the local economy.

That night we camp on the plateau and cook dinner over an open fire built with dead saxaul branches. Sitting on a Persian carpet looking out over the sea, Kamalov pours shots of vodka.

When the sea was healthy and fishermen plied its fertile waters, moisture evaporated off the lake each day. “Now instead of water vapor in the atmosphere, we have toxic dust,” says Kamalov, as he downs a shot with a grim set to his wizened face.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the five “Stans” have often found themselves with conflicting agendas when managing their region’s most precious resource. Complicating matters, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya trace their courses through several different countries, and each claims ownership of the waters that flow through its territory. In hopes of working together to solve Central Asia’s chronic water shortage, the Stans in 1992 formed the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination. Its discussions tend to revolve around two central questions: Who owns the water, and what responsibility do the upstream countries have to protect the resource for those downstream?

In the case of the Aral Sea, the inhabitants of Karakalpakstan, one of Uzbekistan’s poorest regions, appear to have no say about what happens to the water of the Amu Darya upstream, as other countries lay claim to it. “This is discrimination due to geographic location,” says Kamalov. “That water belongs to the Aral.”

Every expert I interviewed predicted that Uzbekistan’s portion of the Aral Sea would not be refilled in any foreseeable human time frame. It’s a point Kamalov seems resigned to.

He loathes the policy that is killing the sea of his homeland. But he confesses that when the fall cotton harvest arrives in a few weeks, he will perform his national service, just as he has done every fall for 50 years. (According to Swerdlow, who directed the Uzbekistan office of Human Rights Watch until the government expelled the organization in late 2010, if Kamalov failed to “volunteer,” he could be fired from his job or arrested.) “No one is exempt,” Kamalov notes. “You can be 90 years old with one eye and one leg and you still must pick.”

Worried about publishing Kamalov’s frank comments, I ask him, again, if he is comfortable going on the record. “In Karakalpakstan we are all afraid of Tashkent,” he replies, referring to the Uzbek capital. “And personally, I’m sick of it.”

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Shepherds move sheep through Karakalpakstan's parched marshlands. Uzbekistan leases this land for farming—mostly cotton. "If they privatized and let the farmers decide what to grow," says Aral Sea expert Philip Micklin, "you'd see more efficient use of water."