The tragedy of the Aral Sea

Sitting on one of the Aral Sea’s abandoned ships

The guide said there was only one bus that left to the remote desert town of Moynaq in the morning, and I had missed it. 

Huffing and puffing in the aftovokzal (автовокзал) with a 10-kilogram backpack that contained all my food and gear for the night, I read each sign board that was  displayed on bus windows in a double act that allowed me to exercise my knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. 

By some miracle, I found a white rickety bus going to Moynaq. The driver told me that he was leaving in an hour and that he was waiting for the seats to be filled. Out of options and out of time to hitchhike due to visa constraints, I found a seat by the window and waited, observing hurried Karakalpak passengers climbing aboard their respective busses. 

Moynaq I lies over 200 kilometers from Nukus, the Karakalpak capital. Wedged between the former seaport and the isolated city is a barely-there bumpy desert road dotted with villages and hamlets that are but blips on the map. From Nukus to Moynaq, the ride takes three to four hours with not much to see except the flat and barren landscapes of the Kyzylkum desert. 

So why am I taking a dilapidated Soviet-style bus that looked like it would collapse in the desert winds just to get to a gloomy town in Central Asia? 

Simple. I wanted to see the world’s worst environmental disaster. 

Moynaq is home to the Aral Sea, a saline lake that used to be the planet’s fourth largest inland body of water. Situated between North Uzbekistan and South Kazakhstan, the lake shrunk remarkably in both area and volume due to irresponsible irrigation. 

Back in the 1960s, when both countries were still part of the USSR, the Soviet Union diverted the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two major inflow rivers that pooled together and formed the Aral Sea, to irrigate arid desert land for cotton production. 

Although irrigation transformed the desert and led to Uzbekistan’s rise as the world’s largest cotton exporter by the end of the 1980s, it ravaged the Aral Sea. 

As decades flew, the USSR kept diverting the water, causing the Aral Sea to gradually shrink. They knew that these efforts would eventually lead to a natural disaster, but they chose to ignore the effects of the ambitious project. 

As it did, the fisheries and communities surrounding and depending on the inland body of water collapsed. The water itself became contaminated with pesticides and unnatural fertilizers. Dust from the bare lakebed, which was tainted with agricultural chemicals and swept by desert winds, became a public health hazard to vulnerable communities whose people suffered from a slew of ailments, including throat cancers, anemia and kidney diseases. This also took a toll on their livelihood, since the salty dust also alighted in their fields and deteriorated soil quality. 

Source: Research Gate

When both countries gained independence from the USSR, their governments carried on with the irrigation project, especially Uzbekistan. 

In a last-gasp attempt to frantically save what’s left of the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan constructed the Kok-Aral dike and dam, which splits the northern and southern parts of the inland lake and prevents whatever water is left in the former to flow to the latter. The dam has led fisheries on the Kazakh side to slightly spring back, and water levels on the northern side witnessed minute increases through time. 

However, with the massive devastation, it was already too late. 

Without the Aral Sea to regulate climate within its region, winters became colder and longer and summers became hotter, drier and unbearable. The loss of such a large body of water had already displaced surrounding residents, forcing them to leave their homes due to lack of livelihood and health concerns. Food and water became scarce, and the government left them to fend for themselves. For those who stayed, they made do with whatever was left of their former fishports and present-day ghost towns. 

Ghost ships in a ghost town

I wanted to head to one of these towns in order to witness the environmental damage firsthand. 

As expected, it took ages for the bus to be full. It made sense. Everyone heading to the remote town was already on the first and most reliable bus because as far as they knew, THAT was the only bus.

Preparing for what hopefully would be a three-hour drive, the driver took a leisurely lunch from a lady who wheeled her food cart right by our bus. She set aside the patterned cloth draped over her selection, revealing cardboard boxes that housed traditional Uzbek plov (rice pilaf), tangy carrot salad, bread, piping hot water, and packets of tea and coffee. 

The Karakalpak lunch lady selling plov on wheels

The driver helped himself with a complete serving of the meaty rice dish, ordering carrot salad and coffee on the side. The woman threw in two slices of bread as if the entire bowl of rice cooked in broth and oil wasn’t heavy enough. Some of the passengers wanted plov too, and soon enough, our small rickety bus was filled with the rich aroma of cooked beef, the sweet smell of fried onions and the warm earthy odor of cumin. 

Although it was a feast for the senses that made even my mouth water, my feet were itching to leave. I instantly regretted not waking up early enough to hitchhike all the way to Moynaq or even catch the first bus, but I reminded myself that I was in a rush. My visa was ending in three days, and I still have to get a ride from Nukus to the Tajik border to be on time for Aziz’s wedding. Going through over 200 kilometers of desert road with semi-ghost towns in a day or two would be a big risk, and waiting for an hour or so in an old Soviet-style bus with a cheap fare was better than not being able to experience what I came all the way to Karakalpakstan for. 

Finally, the driver started the engine. We made our way out of Nukus on the road that led to the desert. The Soviet apartment blocks slowly disappeared, replaced by an endless sea of sand and clusters of mud brick houses nestled among the waves of windburnt barren land. The sky above was as dull as the land below, proudly stretching its eternal grey expanse. The stale raw air blew through our open windows, and the pothole-ridden asphalt made our bus sing a juddering tune. 

In the middle of the boring ride, the middle-aged portly man sitting next to me suddenly took interest in his foreign seatmate. 

“Вы откуда? (Where are you from?)” he asked.

“Я ез Филиппины (I’m from the Philippines.)” I replied. 

“куда ты собираешься? (Where are you going?)” 

“Мойнак (Moynaq),” I answered, and using fragments of my knowledge of Russian, I told him I was out to see the graveyard of abandoned ships on the lakebed. 

“Я живу в мойнакс (I live in Moynaq),” he said. “Но я переехал в Нукус. Вы ничего не найдете в этом городе. Только корабли. (But I moved to Nukus. You’ll find nothing in that town. Just the ships.)” 

“Nothing but ships there,” he said.

I managed to get some shuteye for most part of the trip, only waking up when I felt myself being jammed against the window. 

To my surprise, our rattling bus was already teeming with passengers, much of whom stood on the aisle between our seats. My seatmate gave me an apologetic look. Swaying like the branches of a willow tree in a storm, the standing passengers tilted with each turn and teetered forward as the driver stepped on the brakes, their knuckles white and tightly gripping the bus’s metal railings as we bounced along the bumpy road and dipped upon meeting broken asphalt. 

What our bus to Moynaq looked like mid-way

Granted, the Pamir Highway was a worse road, but I couldn’t imagine enduring a two to three-hour bumpy ride standing up and holding your balance. Through it all, the passengers who were alight maintained a calm expression, eyes staring blankly and lips occasionally giving way to small talk between brakes and bumps. 

We were lucky it was winter. Otherwise, it would feel like we’re stuck in a tin can of slick sweat and hot breath. It reminded me of the same teetering busses back home in the capital, the ones with open windows and were always full of people during rush hour. Commuting in the Philippines is like going through all nine circles of hell, but that’s another story I’ll save for later. 

When we reached Moynaq, I didn’t know that we would be dropped off near the outskirts of town. Shouldering my backpack, I decided to hitch a ride to the shore of the former Aral Sea. The locals who picked me up told me they weren’t really heading there, so I told them it would be fine to drop me along the way. They insisted on giving me a warm welcome and dropped me off directly on the area looking across the ship graveyard.

I waved goodbye to my drivers and faced the overlooking view of what was left of the Aral Sea. 

View overlooking the ship cemetery at Aralkum Desert, once the Aral Sea

Neatly lined in a row and surrounded by sands as far as the eye can see, the ghost ships of the dried up lake stood eerily, corroded ears quietly listening to the fierce howls of the desert’s winter winds. In place of blissfully scented blossoms to adorn their graves were dry bushes with prickly fingers that constantly tangled with each other and fragments of a large seashell mosaic ruined by mankind’s destructive hands. 

Close-up of the row of Aral Sea ships
A look at the lakebed of the Aral Sea

As oblivious as they were to the rust that ate away at their steel skeletons, they allowed whoever walked along their withering bodies to leave behind their marks on paint—declarations of love between young visiting couples, graffiti from the rebellious artist, traditional names that told who was there and when. While they did not protest, they debated amongst themselves whether they stood for life or death. Were they a gateway to what once was or a new sight for what’s now there? Were they remnants of a dead lake or landmarks of a new desert? 

Noticeable graffiti on one of the ships
In front of more graffiti
One of the ships on the Aral
Another rusty, graffiti-coated fishing boat

I snaked past their rusted ribs, standing under equally rusted rudders that once propelled the now-motionless crafts across the thousands islands that one day disappeared alongside their waters. Once sailing across waters that supplied a sixth of the Soviet Union’s fish, I climbed aboard their decaying decks where fishers from not so long ago sang songs of the sea and hauled heavy nets of sturgeon, pike perch, barbel, roach, and trout, silver scales struggling against woven strings. I looked over the windows of wheelhouses where captains once maneuvered their vessels to depths with abundant catch, staying for a full day or two and returning home to their families with fresh fish, windswept hair and the sharp scent of brine. 

View from the wheelhouse window
Inside one of the Aral Sea ships
Exploring the Aral

Sitting on the deck of one of the abandoned boats, I have come to realize that the true ghosts that haunted Moynaq were not found in the abandoned ships left to rot in the desert. They were in the memories these vessels once held: the fisherfolk that once called them their second homes and the way death leisurely swept his bony fingers across a lake and its people. 

I realized that the true monsters of this story were those who chose to be heralds of destruction.  They are the ones we ought to fear. Despite the passing of time, the switching of powers and the harsh doctrines of history, they remain among us, looking for lands to plunder, seeking for seas to dry up, driving people into exile for glory and profit.

As long as they’re let out into the world, there is a possibility that the Southern Aral, the people who never left its former fishing towns and other coastal areas across the globe would never see ships sail again. 

Will ships ever sail again on the Aral?

Yet hope dies last. 

The shore, which once rested 50 kilometers away from Aralsk, Kazakhstan, now only lies 15 kilometers from the small city. Its inhabitants have begun to restore fishing, and farming has started to see better days. 

The Northern Aral increased its water level by four meters in merely half a year and grew to a third in one year, which allowed it to reclaim part of its marine fauna. Along with restoration efforts of the Kazakh government, the World Bank, scientists and supporting organizations, nature has proven that it can return: the Aral Sea is slowly healing itself, with water decreasing to a particular volume due to high salinity, stagnating evaporation and steadying its recovery.

Hope for the Aral Sea Source: Aramco World

Although man can be nature’s greatest adversary, their work can also be its greatest salvation, especially when carried on altogether. 

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