Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Aralsk: Pictures of the Vanished Aral Sea

A PLACE IN CENTRAL ASIA – A victim of one of the greatest ecological catastrophes of the twentieth century, the Aral Sea, which is located in northern Uzbekistan and western Kazakhstan, has lost more than 75% of its total volume over many decades since the Soviet period. It has now reached the point of being called the “Aral Desert,” however, since the construction of a dam in 2005, hope seems to have returned to Aralsk, on the Kazakh side, as the water level begins to rise and fishermen fill their nets once again; but for how long?

This article was originally published on Novastan’s French website on 28 May 2021.

Since the 1960s, the cultivation of cotton rapidly increased in Central Asia. The Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya rivers, which feed into the Aral Sea, were consequently diverted in order to irrigate the cotton plantations. The sea quickly lost 75% to 90% of its total volume and the water’s salinity increased dramatically, killing off most of the sea’s biodiversity. Water gave way to immense expanses of desert and salt flats. To this ecological disaster add social catastrophe: most of the population around the Aral Sea had relied on the fishing industry to make a living. Now, with the industry completely abandoned and villages left empty, a few families who stayed turned to camel breeding as a new way of life.

Want more Central Asia in your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Located western Kazakhstan, Aralsk is a former fishing port and cotton trading centre. With the receding coast since the 1960s, the Aral Sea today is 90 kilometres from Aralsk. In strolling the city’s dusty streets at the end of 2019, it was difficult to imagine such a glorious seaside past; only the ruins of the port’s infrastructure and some maritime signage recalled a vanished prosperity that once was.

The Kokaral Dam, a bit of good news

The construction of the Kokaral Dam (or Dike Kokaral) in 2005 resulted in a six meter rise of the sea’s water level in the northern portion of the sea, called the Little Aral Sea. Inhabitants of Aralsk found hope in this, even though the sea remained more than 30 kilometres from its old piers.

Read more on Novastan: The Aral Sea artemia: small shrimp, high stakes

The stalls of the only fish shop in the city were soon stocked again and the main roads were finally paved, which led to a whisper of optimism among the sandy streets of the city.

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Aralsk, an old fishing port. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Aralsk Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Today Aralsk is empty, or nearly empty. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Residents in the village of Akespe gather to pass the time. In this isolated village, formerly on the coast of the Aral Sea, work is scarce. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

A camel stands on the shores of a dry Aral Sea, like a symbol of the region’s transformation into a desert. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

In order to develop tourism, a few local guides began taking their chances with the imposing shells of old rusty boats. These old boats are in danger of disappearing as locals cut them up into metal sheets to reuse or sell. In the 2000s, fifteen of these boats were counted; at the end of 2019, only one remained. Even so, some Kazakh tourists enjoy a hot spring, formerly below sea level, for its rumoured miraculous powers.

In Tastubek, water is money

In Tastubek, located about one hundred kilometre’s from Aralsk, life goes on. The rise in sea level put fishermen back to work and woke up this village, which had been snoozing for several decades. The old ships had set out to sea again, new houses began to pop up; from only 90 houses in 1960, the village saw its population reduced to eight households in 1996, but in 2019 there were 32.

Six o’clock in the evening, and the weather is ideal: the sun is bright and the wind non-existent. Nourljan and Arman collect the nets they untangled in the afternoon and take a spin in their UAZ, a Soviet off-road vehicle commonly used here. With the recent rise in water level, the sea is only a ten-minute drive from the village. At the shore they hop into their father’s old boat armed with three nets and a GPS tag, setting up for the following morning. With optimism and focus, these two young men are ready to fish some of the 15 species now reintroduced into the Aral Sea.

Aralsk Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Near Aralsk. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Tastubek Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan Tastubek

Tastubek is now bordered by the Little Aral Sea. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

A fisherman and his daughter observe the construction of their new house. In Tastubek the re-covered proximity to the Aral Sea brings a new prosperity to fishermen. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Determined fishermen

Alarms go off at five o’clock the following morning. Nourljan is hopeful as the calm of the previous night promises an excellent catch. A few minutes later Arman joins him in the UAZ. The bumpy former seabed tests the vehicle’s suspension and reinforces the determination of the two fishermen.

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

The fishermen’s old UAZ takes the road to the edge of the Aral Sea in the early morning. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Nourljan and Arman, two fishermen of Tastubek, head out to set their nets. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

A Tastubek fisherman waits for the return of his companions, who had set out one hour earlier. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

A 60-year-old widow, Vayan, lives with her son, Nourljan. When is he is out fishing, Vayan takes care of the house and helps her granddaughter with her homework. At noon, as with every return of the fishermen, fish will take the seat of honour at the table. She prepares camel meat for the evening meal, “The men go fishing and the women tend to the camels. That’s how it works here,” says Vayan, but she hopes her granddaughter will one day leave the village to study at a university.

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Vayan lives with her son, Nourljan. When is he is fishing, Vayan takes care of the household and helps with the education of her granddaughter. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

The fishermen are active again

The three nets are collected and fish cover the floor; it’s time to go back. Arman’s face is serious: the catch wasn’t good today, despite ideal conditions. Only 12 kilograms were caught, versus about fifty on a typical day — a bit of respite for the seabed. Quotas are rarely respected in the Aral Sea, now a chronic victim of overfishing.

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Arman heads for the centre of the Little Aral Sea to set his nets, which will stay submerged all night. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

At nightfall Nourljan and Arman lay the nets. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Nourljan cuts the boat’s motor and raises his oars so as not to disturb his prey. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Tastubek has rediscovered its former glory. The fishermen live comfortably from their labour, and electricity finally lights their homes, but not all villages along the former shores of the Aral Sea have the same fate. Too far from the shore, some villages remain dormant, sometimes buried under sand; rambling and raising camels remain the only escape from an ordinary morning in this new life in the desert of the Aral Sea.

The disaster continues

The renewed enthusiasm of fishermen and of government announcements seems like a victory: the Aral Sea is saved! However, the reality is much more nuanced. If the sea’s disappearance has been partly avoided, the disaster continues against a background of optimism.

The announcement of the sea’s miracle rescue has only served to increase local overconsumption of water and overfishing, accentuated by renewed demographic pressure. Worse still, the cultivation of rice and cotton, massive consumers of water, has not diminished in recent years. Moreover, if the Kazakh side is doing better, the historic Uzbek side remains hopelessly arid.

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Nourljan searches with binoculars for his nets, which were set the previous evening. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

Arman and Nourljan unload their morning catch. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

Antoine Beguier Aral Sea Environment Uzbekistan Kazakhstan

An old minibus leaves one of the isolated villages on the edge of the Aral Sea to return to Aralsk. [legend]
Antoine Beguier

The Kokaral Dam has become a symbol of the mirage of Aral — a deliverer of promises and future disappointments. Many locals talk about increasing the height of the dam, which would allow water to return to the port of Aralsk, but skeptics have already become accustomed to the absurdity of living in a port with no sea.

« A Place in Central Asia » is a collection of articles about under-represented or under-reported places in the region. Find out more by clicking here. Want to participate? Send your ideas about places to editorial[at]novastan.org.

Antoine Béguier
Freelance Photographer

Translated from French by Judy Harter

Edited by Kiki Gray

For more news and analysis from Central Asia, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, Linkedin or Instagram.

Share With:

Photographe documentaire.

[email protected]

No Comments

Leave A Comment

Captcha loading...