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Aral Sea

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Generally, stories about lakes and other bodies of water are stories of peaceful enjoyment and recreation. The story of the Aral Sea however, is one of great loss, serious ecological upheaval and bureaucratic bumbling on a massive scale. There are hopes of a renewal on the horizon, but the recovery will be long and painful. The Aral Sea, once one of central Asia's great treasures and givers of life to the local population, is now dying and disappearing at an unbelievable rate. Ecology-minded tourists come here simply to see the losses to a region formerly under Soviet central planning and the decimation such interference with nature can cause.

Once one of the four largest lakes on record, the name Aral translates to the Sea of Islands; more than 1500 islands once dotted the surface of the 26,300 square mile inland sea. The huge brackish lake supported a thriving commercial fishery, and its waters drew vacationers to resorts along the shore to swim, sun-bathe and enjoy fishing and pleasure boating. The newly independent countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are working with global environmental interests to save the lake with an eye toward restoring it at least partially.

The giant landlocked lake has no natural outlet: water was gained from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya Rivers. Amu Darya - also known as the Oxus - is the longest river in Central Asia, beginning in the snow-capped Hindu Kush, and flowing north for 1,500 miles before ending in a delta at the south end of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya feeds the Aral's northern end. The area receives very little rainfall. Archaeology shows that humans have lived along the Aral Sea for thousands of years. The native people were nomadic and often beset by outside invaders. The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane all conquered these lands, but by the 16th century, indigenous Uzbek tribes controlled most of Central Asia. They built their cities and established regional commerce along this portion of the Old Silk Road. Increased ocean-going trade reduced the importance of the older trade routes; wars with Iran and invasion from northern nomadic tribes further weakened the local tribes. In the 19th century Russia invaded and conquered all of Uzbekistan, and by 1924 it was transformed into a socialist republic. What hundreds of years of wars and tribal disagreements couldn't destroy, the Soviet Five-Year Plan accomplished in record time.

In the Soviet quest for cash crops, the two rivers feeding the Aral Sea were dammed and diverted to irrigate thousands of acres of cotton and wheat in the delta area beginning in the 1960s. Both crops require copious amounts of water. Poor agriculture practices make chemical fertilizers and pesticides necessary to harvest heavy yields. Irrigation reduced the flow of the rivers to a small percentage of their previous outflow. Chemical and pesticide run-off quickly polluted the Aral Sea's waters. The Amu Darya eventually no longer flowed into the lake; all water went to irrigate crops. The Syr Darya continued to reach the Aral, although with a much reduced amount of water. The Aral Sea began to shrink-at first slowly, then more and more rapidly. As evaporation in the now shallower lake increased, salinity increased as did pesticide and chemical concentrations. The fish died and the fishing industry collapsed almost overnight. The climate was no longer moderated by the large body of water, so summers grew hotter and winters colder. Increased winds blew across the deposits of salts and pollutants on the dry portions of the lakebed, resulting in major dust storms carrying the causes of respiratory ailments and chronic disease.

In addition, the Soviets closed off the area to outsiders and used the area for weapons testing and hid biological weapons on islands in the lake. In the years leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea was reduced to a tenth of its former volume and was now two separate lakes. The north basin, receiving more water, still looked something like a lake, although much smaller. The south portion became a sea of mud covered with a crust of salts and toxic residue. What water is left has receded 60 miles from the old shoreline. Local harbors could no longer reach the receding waters, leaving graveyards of rusting fishing trawlers mired in the mud. If this were an unfortunate accident based on ignorance, it might be forgivable. But records show the Soviets knew and discussed what would happen if the river flows were reduced. The Aral Sea was intentionally sacrificed to the monetary needs of the collectivist State. Even they appeared to be stunned at the speed with which it occurred.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the regions in the area became independent states. With help from the World Bank, the countries surrounding the sea have built a dam to conserve water flowing into the north basin of the lake. Fish have returned and the northern basin now supports some sport fishing, although commercial fishing is not yet viable. Plans are being made to try to restore at least a portion of the southern basin, although no one expects to be able to return it to its former glory. There are plans for increasing tourism to the growing northern lake. At this point, most visitors would prefer to gape at the huge mud-and-salt plain that was the former Aral Sea. Treks can be arranged to see and photograph the rusting hulks half-buried in the mud and shifting sands.

Tourists to Uzbekistan invariably want to visit the ship's graveyards from Muynak (Moynaq). Local drivers can be hired to take tourists out to the ships. Another worthy stop is the City Museum of Local Lore to learn the history of the region and view the paintings of artists Fahim Yusupovich Madgazin and Raphael Tevatrosovich Matevosyan. Both artists have specialized in presenting a pictorial description of the Aral Sea rendered in vivid colors. There is little lodging or food service in Muynak, but some local families will allow visitors to rent a room in their home. The town of Nukus, 130 miles south of Muynak, holds the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, usually just called the Nukus Museum. This museum houses the world's second largest collection of avant garde Russian art and also holds one of the largest collections of applied and contemporary art, folk art and archeological objects from Central Asia. Sometimes visitors can arrange air transportation to view the Aral Sea from above, the perfect way to understand the scale of the devastation.

A side trip any visitor to Uzbekistan must make is to the Old Town at Khiva. Itchan Kala, the city center, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the most remote Central Asian Silk Road cities and has been preserved from medieval times. The old city, founded 2500 years ago, holds more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries. Of special interest is the ancient inner walled city. The walled city is a maze of narrow medieval streets lined with mosques, madrassahs, palaces and caravanserais . Other attractions in the old city include Kukhna Ark, Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassah and Square, Kalta Minor and Juma Mosque.

A visit to the Aral Sea is not for the infirm or the faint of heart; in summer, the weather is very hot and, in areas near the sea, very humid. The dry desert is subject to dust storms carrying salts and chemicals. Public transportation is limited, although there is some train service. Lodgings are also scarce and the local fare is not what most tourists would think of as haute cuisine. For the budding ecologist, the trip will be highly enlightening and may offer a chance to help bring this huge inland sea back to something reminiscent of its former glory.

Statistics are not listed on the sidebar because these numbers are changing rapidly and are thus unreliable. When the Aral Sea was much closer to its full pool in the early-1990's, its surface area was 16.3 million acres, its water volume was 884 million acre-feet, and its normal elevation above sea level was 175 feet. If if were that size today it would measure among the world's largest five lakes by acreage, and among the largest 15 by volume.


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