All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan

The Aral Sea

A few hours north of Nukus in Karakalpakstan is the city of Moynak, site of the worst ecological catastrophe of the 20th Century. Moynak used to be a fishing town on the edge of the 3rd largest inland sea in the world: the Aral Sea. But the Aral Sea is now a desert, drained in a mere 40 years as a result of soviet agricultural policy.

The history of the Aral Sea is wound up in the history of cotton production in Central Asia, which is in turn linked, tragically, to the American Civil War. The driving force of the Aral Sea’s transformation was Mother Russia’s need for cotton. This demand was supplied by the American South up until the civil war, when the North’s blockade kept southern cotton off the world’s markets. So Russia looked to its own southern conquests in Central Asia, and began encouraging the intensive cultivation of cotton in semi-arid Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (then under the collective banner of “Russian Turkestan”).

Cotton production requires water. Lots of water. So irrigation was needed from the major rivers of the area: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, both of which empty into the Aral Sea.

To get to Moynak we crossed the dwindling Amu Darya, which further East forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. When last I had seen this river I was looking across it toward Afghanistan from Khorog, where it is called the River Panj. By the time it reaches the makeshift collection of rusting barges which passes for a bridge on the way to Moynak it is greatly diminished. Further north on the way to the Aral Sea it disappears altogether.

Moynak’s main industry before the catastrophe was fishing and canning. But the Soviet planners had even bigger dreams. They saw the region as an opportunity to fulfill the USSR’s goal to become self-sufficient in cotton. Thus Imperial Russia’s cotton greed was continued even more intensively by the Revolutionaries. The Soviet Union was able to mobilize the labor and technology to irrigate the Amu Darya basin to a degree the Tsarist’s could never have achieved. The result was 20 years worth of unprecedented bumper cotton crops. But the golden eggs were not without their cost.

The irrigation was so extensive it kept the Amu Darya from filling the Aral, shrinking the inland sea steadily every year. In Moynak, denial was the first reaction. They dug a channel from the port to the sea so the fishing boats could continue docking where they always had. But the channel got longer every year, until the fishermen gave up and left the boats to rust. The canneries closed, and thousands began to leave, fleeing a region increasingly plagued by a polluted water table, temperature extremes and rising incidence of birth defects.

Our visit to Moynak was only made more bleak by the freezing wind sweeping in from the man-made desert that has replaced the Aral Sea. It didn’t take long to take in what there is to see of the place, but it’s not a sight I’ll be likely to forget. And it should be noted that life goes on.

Waiting for the bus back to Nukus (a sweaty 4 hour ordeal in a standing-room-only conveyance as it turned out), we watched a woman and her son roll out dough for sombusas. People milled around, sellers of bread and sweets regaled us with their wares, and eventually the bus came and filled up with passengers for Nukus. Environmental catastrophe has not stripped life from Moynak, but it has made it harder.

The Aral Sea Desert stands as a warning, a reminder that man’s power sadly outstrips his wisdom. And yes, it points to a key weakness in the Soviet system. No one could gainsay the central planners who engineered the Aral’s demise. But if you think America is immune to this sort of dilemma, just look at the tangled web of ecological missteps that is California’s water crisis. From the Salton Sea to the algal blooms choking the marine life out of the Gulf of California, America has her own issues of water over-utilization.

So beware. The ghost ships of the Aral Sea should be enough to convince us all that we are not infallible and the earth’s resources may not withstand human greed.

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