Balbike, the oldest woman in Tastubek has seen the decline of her village when the Aral Sea dried up and the fishes died. The fishing village, located about 90 km from Aralsk near the northern shore of the Little Aral, lost nearly all its inhabitants during the seventies and eighties. By that time Tastubek was nearly a ghost town and the few families that held out eked out a living breading camels. But since 1996 life is slowly coming back to the village: In the mid 1990s local villagers had build a small sand dam to stabilize the sea level in the Little Aral that prevented the drainage of its water into the vast plains of the South Aral. Some people tried introducing the salt tolerant Black Sea Flounder to the reappearing lake and by 1996 the first fishermen were trying their luck again. When the water level in the Little Aral and hence the pressure on the makeshift dam began to rise, it was washed away in 1998. But in the short time though it withstand the elements the local climate became milder, and the fauna was partly restored. Encouraged by the positive signals the World Bank finally set aside 85 Million Dollars to build a proper dam at the southern border of the Northern basin and to restore miles of canals on the Syr Darya to increase the inflow into the Little Aral. After the completion of the Kok-Aral Dam in 2005 the water level in the “Little Aral” rose by more than 3.6m within 7 months and its surface grew by about 50 percent. The raising sea stabilized the local climate, and reestablished a healthy food chain. Since more than 15 kinds of fish have reappeared including silver carp, pike and silver perch as well as catfish, bream and roach. Slowly people started coming back to Tastobek to retrieve their families’ traditional custom and the fishing production of the Little Aral expanded from 600 tons in 1996 to over 7,000 tons today.
Paintings in the museum in Muynak are reminders of the cities prosperous past. Once one of the Aral Sea’s two main fishing ports Muynak today is a desperate place that lays about 200 kilometer away from the shoreline in a man made desert. The people who remain suffer from unemployment, polluted water and poisonous dust storms that rage during long periods each year. In its heyday Muynak’s cannery and large industrial fishing fleet employed about 30,000 people and fish from the Aral Sea was sold all over the Soviet Union. When the Aral Sea was destroyed, ten thousands of fishermen lost their livelihood, the boats stranded in new formed desert and most people moved away.
Chasing ships at sea proofed to be a dusty endeavor. For hours we drove through the desert, that featured flat stretches and areas that were more hilly. Sometimes we passed camels and even a few horses grazing on the little greens that covered part of the ground. We stoped for a quick break and when I stood there pissing and taking in the view I looked down to the white gleaming ground a few feet ahead. When I took a closer look I realized that millions of shells covered the ground. Where I was watering the desert, just 50 years ago industrial sized fish trawlers brought in their harvest that was sold all over the Soviet Union. And now there was nothing more than a heavily polluted desert left: Aralkum – The Aral Sands. The Aral Sea began declining in the 1960s, after massive irrigation projects divided large portions of the water from its two supplying rivers to irrigate cotton and other crops in the steppes and desert of Central Asia. In the 1960s the water level fell at by an average of 20 cm per year. When irrigation further increased, the loss nearly tripled to 50–60 cm per year in the 1970s, and by the 1980s the decline accelerated to about 80–90 cm each year. In total around 60,000 sq km of water has evaporated into thin air. And the ships stranded in the desert became a symbol for what the UN has called the worst man-made environmental disaster in history.
A salt crust polluted by pesticides of Uzbekistan’s cotton industry covers the ground of the Aral Sea seabed in the former harbor of Muynak. The United Nations has dubbed the Aral Sea the worst man-made environmental disaster in history. They estimate that 100 million tonnes of salt-dust blows annually from the new formed Aralkum desert that covers an area the size of the Netherlands. The toxic storms often raging for days on end are polluting the air, water and food in the region leading to a high occurrence of tuberculosis, anaemia, various cancers, liver and kidney diseases, and birth and genetic defects. But it isn’t only a regional crisis. The regular storms raise the poisonous dust and salt into the air and carries it thousands of kilometers to the east into the mountains that form the Pamir-Knot. The deposed salt adds to the effects of climate change and further accelerates the melting of the glaciers setting all of Central Asia’s water supply at peril. This salt-dust has even been found in Greenland and Japan and the pesticides of the Aral region can be traced in the blood of Antarctica’s penguins.