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 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.

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.

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