Our Love and Pain, Aral!

Uzbekistan Today (English) - - FRONT PAGE - Igor Saneyev

The two-day trip to Karakalpak­stan of the en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ists from the cap­i­tal and the lo­cal col­leagues who joined them in Nukus al­lowed not only to take part in var­i­ous events, meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple from the North­ern re­gion, but also once again to come into con­tact with the global eco­log­i­cal tragedy, whose name is the Aral Sea.

The me­dia tour was or­ga­nized by the Cen­tral Asian Re­gional En­vi­ron­men­tal Cen­ter (CAREC) in the frame­work of the EU-funded project on aware­ness and part­ner­ship for sus­tain­able wa­ter and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­vel­op­ment in Uzbek­istan.

The ma­jor com­po­nent in this trip, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­niz­ers, was, of course, the round ta­ble ded­i­cated to the prospects of de­vel­op­ment of Muy­nak district and wa­ter sav­ing tech­nolo­gies. But the em­ploy­ees of CAREC, ap­par­ently well aware that the re­ports in Muy­nak alone will be a bit «nosy» for jour­nal­ists, tried to re­vive them with vivid and lively in­for­ma­tion about the past and present of the Aral Sea. And it was this that gave all par­tic­i­pants in the me­dia tour an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence, com­ing to the fore.


The Aral Sea un­til 1960 was one of the largest reser­voirs in the world with an area of 68.9 thou­sand square kilo­me­ters and a wa­ter vol­ume of 1,083 cu­bic kilo­me­ters, its length was 426 km, width con­sti­tuted 284 km, while the great­est depth reached 68 me­ters.

The Aral zone was a re­gion with a wide va­ri­ety of flora and fauna, 38 fish species and a num­ber of rare species in­hab­ited by wa­ter, the num­ber of saigas reached 1 mil­lion heads, the floris­tic com­po­si­tion was 638 species of higher plants.

In the past, the Aral Sea was one of the rich­est fish­ing grounds in the world: the an­nual catch of fish in the reser­voirs of the Aral Sea was 30-35 thou­sand tons. More than 80% of the in­hab­i­tants of the coast were en­gaged in the ex­trac­tion, pro­cess­ing and trans­porta­tion of fish and fish prod­ucts. Fer­tile lands of the delta of the Amudarya and Syrdarya, as well as highly pro­duc­tive pas­tures pro­vided em­ploy­ment for more than 100 thou­sand peo­ple in the sphere of an­i­mal hus­bandry, poul­try farm­ing, grow­ing of agri­cul­tural crops.

Also the sea was mit­i­gated by sharp fluc­tu­a­tions in the weather through­out the re­gion, which had a fa­vor­able ef­fect on the liv­ing con­di­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion and the eco­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. The air masses in­vad­ing the re­gion dur­ing win­ter warmed up, and in sum­mer cooled over the wa­ter area of the Aral Sea.

The prob­lems arose and took on alarm­ing pro­por­tions in the 1960s as a re­sult of thought­less reg­u­la­tion of the ma­jor trans­bound­ary rivers of the re­gion - the Syrdarya and the Amudarya, due to which the Aral in the past re­ceived about 56 cu­bic km of wa­ter an­nu­ally. The sig­nif­i­cant growth of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing here, the scale of ur­ban­iza­tion and in­ten­sive de­vel­op­ment of lands, the con­struc­tion in the past of large hy­drotech­ni­cal and ir­ri­ga­tion fa­cil­i­ties on the wa­ter­courses of the basin of this sea, with­out tak­ing into ac­count the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, cre­ated the con­di­tions for the drying out of one of the most beau­ti­ful reser­voirs on the planet. In fact, dur­ing the life­time of one gen­er­a­tion, a whole sea was lost, the process of degra­da­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment con­tin­ues, turn­ing the Aral Sea into a life­less desert.

Over the past 50 years, the to­tal flow of rivers to the Aral Sea has been re­duced to an av­er­age of 12.7 cu. km, or al­most 4.5 times. The area of the wa­ter sur­face of the sea was re­duced 8 times, the vol­ume of the wa­ter mass de­creased by more than

13 times. The wa­ter level, which was be­fore 1960 at the ab­so­lute mark of 53.4 m, de­creased by 29 m. The level of salin­ity in­creased by more than 13-25 times and ex­ceeds by 7-11 times the av­er­age level of min­er­al­iza­tion of the World Ocean.

On the site of the dried up part of the sea, once a source of rich flora and fauna and a nat­u­ral cli­matic reg­u­la­tor of the ad­ja­cent ter­ri­to­ries, a sand and salt «Aralkum» desert with an area of more than 5.5 mil­lion hectares, in­ex­orably cap­tur­ing the re­gion of the Aral Sea, arose. In the zone of per­ma­nent en­vi­ron­men­tal risk, neg­a­tively af­fect­ing the qual­ity of life, health and, most im­por­tantly, the gene pool of peo­ple, it turned out not only the ter­ri­to­ries sur­round­ing the sea, but the whole of Cen­tral Asia.

An­nu­ally more than 75 mil­lion tons of dust and poi­sonous salts are ris­ing from the Aral Sea. Dust trails, lifted from the bot­tom of the former sea, reach 400 km in length and 40 km in width. Ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists, Aral dust has al­ready been recorded in the glaciers of the Pamir and Tian Shan moun­tains, as well as the Arc­tic.

In the Aral Sea re­gion, a com­plex set of eco­log­i­cal, cli­matic, so­cio-eco­nomic and de­mo­graphic prob­lems emerged, which have far-reach­ing, men­ac­ing global con­se­quences.

Since the early 1960s, in the Aral Sea re­gion, the num­ber of days with tem­per­a­tures over 40° C has dou­bled, in places the tem­per­a­ture is 49° C in the shade.

Pol­lu­tion of wa­ter and a large vol­ume of salt and dust re­moval from the bot­tom of the dry sea con­trib­uted to the growth of a num­ber of dis­eases among the pop­u­la­tion of the re­gion, such as ane­mia, kid­ney, blood, gas­troin­testi­nal, res­pi­ra­tory, car­dio­vas­cu­lar, cholelithi­a­sis and other dis­eases. Chil­dren are es­pe­cially ex­posed to a par­tic­u­larly neg­a­tive im­pact of a dan­ger­ous eco­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. The con­tent of dioxin in the blood of preg­nant women and the milk of nurs­ing moth­ers in Karakalpak­stan is five times higher than in Europe.

As a re­sult of the loss of the trans­port im­por­tance of the sea, the de­cay of fish­ing, live­stock and other types of man­age­ment, the re­duc­tion of pas­tures and the de­cline in land pro­duc­tiv­ity, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple lost their tra­di­tional sources of liveli­hood.

In the Aral Sea re­gion, more than half of the gene pool of the plant and an­i­mal world has dis­ap­peared. 11 species of fishes, 12 species of mam­mals, 26 species of birds, 11 species of plants were vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared.

The scarcity of wa­ter re­sources, the de­crease in the qual­ity of drink­ing wa­ter, pol­lu­tion and land degra­da­tion, the sharp de­cline in bio­di­ver­sity, the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the health and gene pool of the pop­u­la­tion, cli­matic changes as a re­sult of in­creased tur­bid­ity of the at­mos­phere, and pos­si­bly the as­so­ci­ated de­crease in glacier area in Pamir and Tian Shan moun­tains, where a sig­nif­i­cant part of the runoff of the main rivers of the re­gion is formed - all this is only a short list of the re­sults of the Aral Sea tragedy.


But it's one thing to read about this tragedy in var­i­ous publi­ca­tions or even in en­cy­clo­pe­dias, and it's quite an­other to see with your own eyes.

When you see an open-air mu­seum called «ship ceme­tery», the heart in­vol­un­tar­ily con­tracts. Hav­ing climbed onto a pile of rusty iron it is some­how dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a fish­ing schooner plow­ing the most beau­ti­ful pond in the world, the joy­ful cries of sailors after suc­cess­ful fish­ing, and the happy faces of their rel­a­tives wait­ing for the fish­er­men on the shore.

After all, a ship in the sand, sur­rounded by thorny bushes - this is a tragedy, this is non­sense, it should not be. And look­ing from the former Muy­nak pier to the desert stretch­ing be­yond the hori­zon, it is very dif­fi­cult to dream of a sea that took 200 kilo­me­ters.

When I flew to Nukus, I talked to my neigh­bor in an air­plane liv­ing in Karakalpak­stan. To my re­gret that the Aral was trag­i­cally killed, he re­sponded with a rather un­ex­pected state­ment: yes, he did not per­ish, this is all tem­po­rary, you do not have to bury him per­ma­nently, after some time the sea will nec­es­sar­ily re­vive. Re­quired! And such con­vic­tion was in his words, he ra­di­ated such op­ti­mism that

I did not even want to ar­gue with him, afraid to of­fend.

Then, at a meet­ing with the di­rec­tor of the Nukus branch of the In­ter­na­tional Fund for Sav­ing the Aral Sea (IFAS), Rashid Koshekov, where he gave a de­tailed ac­count of the causes and con­se­quences of the Aral tragedy and the work that is cur­rently un­der­way, I told him about this con­ver­sa­tion and asked: what caused this op­ti­mism of lo­cal res­i­dents, what are they an­cient le­gends that are among the pop­u­la­tion?

To the sur­prise of Koshekov, the in­flu­ence of the «le­gends» was com­pletely re­jected, more­over, he him­self ex­pressed con­fi­dence that «sooner or later, when we may no longer ex­ist, the Aral Sea will reap­pear in this an­cient land!»

Is it a dream? Or a hy­poth­e­sis that has a sci­en­tific ba­sis?

The head of the Nukus branch of IFAS ex­plained that Aral had al­ready dis­ap­peared in its his­tory, but then ... reap­peared. Why not re­peat this sce­nario? Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tist, who para­phrased the fa­mous phrase about the lever, which can turn the earth, if there are fi­nan­cial means, it is quite pos­si­ble to re­vive the Aral Sea.

More­over, in his opin­ion, the project of the trans­fer of the north­ern Rus­sian rivers to the Aral Sea, if it had been im­ple­mented at the time, would cer­tainly be­come salu­tary for the per­ish­ing sea. It is not by chance that the former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov pro­posed to re­vive this project to­day.

Rashid Koshekov told a lot of in­ter­est­ing about IFAS projects im­ple­mented in the Aral Sea. For ex­am­ple, the cre­ation of small lo­cal wa­ter bod­ies in the Amu Darya delta (worth $ 90 mil­lion) or for­est plan­ta­tions in var­i­ous parts of the ex­tinct sea, com­plained about the lack of sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial re­sources. All these projects are fi­nanced only through con­tri­bu­tions from Uzbek­istan to IFAS. To ex­pand the fund's ac­tiv­i­ties and take largescale, prac­ti­cal mea­sures to mit­i­gate the con­se­quences of the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis in the Aral Sea re­gion, it is nec­es­sary to at­tract grants from in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and donor coun­tries.

Still, the con­ver­sa­tion with him some­how set the jour­nal­ists on a more op­ti­mistic mood. After all, we want so much to be­lieve, de­spite the se­vere ver­dict of sci­en­tists and ecol­o­gists that the Aral Sea will re­turn, will nec­es­sar­ily re­turn ... Even if it's just a dream!


Dur­ing the round ta­ble, which was held in the build­ing of the Muy­nak hokimiyat, the prospects for the de­vel­op­ment of this area, in­clud­ing its eco­tourism po­ten­tial, were dis­cussed. And also about the im­por­tance of in­tro­duc­ing wa­ter-sav­ing and other mod­ern tech­nolo­gies to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

Saylavbay Dani­yarov, hokim of the district, was elected to this post a few months ago. He gives the im­pres­sion of an en­er­getic and pur­pose­ful leader who knows first­hand about ex­ist­ing prob­lems and how to solve them. And he be­lieves that it is nec­es­sary to at­tract the at­ten­tion of the me­dia and the gen­eral pub­lic to the unique Muy­nak district lo­cated in the zone of eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe.

If now for­eign tourists come to Nukus to visit the Sav­it­sky Mu­seum, then in the near­est fu­ture, in the opin­ion of the hokim, they should be mas­sively in­ter­ested in the «ceme­tery of ships» in Muy­nak, and nu­mer­ous lakes with the pos­si­bil­ity of fish­ing, and many other en­vi­ron­men­tal ob­jects.

Well, the tourist prospects of Muy­nak district, when the eco­log­i­cal beau­ties of the north­ern re­gion will add to the an­cient mon­u­ments of Khiva for for­eign tourists, plus the Sav­it­sky mu­seum and other ob­jects of Nukus, look quite at­trac­tive. It's only the im­ple­men­ta­tion of these in­ter­est­ing ideas.

How­ever, even a trip along the main street of Muy­nak leaves a not very pleas­ant im­pres­sion. It seems that this is not a city, but an aban­doned moun­tain vil­lage. Even gravel on the road have not yet been laid out, what else to talk about other tourist in­fra­struc­ture. It af­fects some kind of un­set­tled and un­tidy of this small town, ev­ery­where ly­ing trash.

From an ac­ci­den­tal con­ver­sa­tion with the lo­cals you will find out that in the city there is lit­er­ally nowhere to «put your hands on», there is nowhere to spend your free time. Es­pe­cially it con­cerns young peo­ple. There­fore, many of them leave their na­tive places in search of a bet­ter share.

Can a young and en­er­getic hokim break this sit­u­a­tion?

Other re­ports, which sounded at the round ta­ble, al­lowed the par­tic­i­pants of the me­dia out­let to learn more about the ac­tiv­i­ties of CAREC. It was started in 2001. Work­ing through the head of­fice in Al­maty (Kaza­khstan) and the es­tab­lished net­work of its branches in the cap­i­tals of five Cen­tral Asian states (in­clud­ing Uzbek­istan), CAREC has be­come a true leader in en­vi­ron­men­tal co­op­er­a­tion in the re­gion. And to date, this re­gional cen­ter rep­re­sents a unique plat­form for the de­vel­op­ment of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the Cen­tral Asian en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mu­nity and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

For more than 15 years, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has im­ple­mented over 230 projects to­tal­ing 48 mil­lion eu­ros. Dur­ing this pe­riod CAREC demon­strated high tech­ni­cal, hu­man and or­ga­ni­za­tional po­ten­tial on the ba­sis of five the­matic pro­grams, such as Ed­u­ca­tion for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment (ESD), the Wa­ter Ini­tia­tives Pro­gram (WIP), Cli­mate Change and Sus­tain­able En­ergy (CCSE), En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Pro­gram (EMP) and a new «En­vi­ron­ment and Health» (EH) pro­gram.

The CAREC branch in Uzbek­istan has signed mem­o­ran­dums of co­op­er­a­tion with or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Eco­log­i­cal Move­ment of Uzbek­istan, the «Su­vchi» NGO, the Tashkent In­sti­tute of Agri­cul­tural Ir­ri­ga­tion and Mech­a­niza­tion. Within the frame­work of the Me­moran­dum of Co­op­er­a­tion be­tween TIAIM and the Re­gional En­vi­ron­men­tal Cen­ter of Cen­tral Asia, unique in the whole Cen­tral Asian re­gion Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence and Sci­en­tific Re­search will be cre­ated in Tashkent.


Dur­ing the trip, a mag­nif­i­cent cul­tural pro­gram was or­ga­nized for its par­tic­i­pants. In par­tic­u­lar, jour­nal­ists vis­ited the le­gendary Sav­it­sky Art Mu­seum, also called the Lou­vre in the Desert.

Its col­lec­tion in­cludes over 90 thou­sand ex­hibits, in­clud­ing the Rus­sian avant-garde, the fine arts of Uzbek­istan, folk-ap­plied art of Karakalpak­stan, the art of An­cient Khorezm, sup­ple­mented with copies of a num­ber of ex­hibits of the Parisian Lou­vre. Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts and world press, the col­lec­tion of the State Mu­seum of the Repub­lic of Karakalpak­stan named after I.V. Sav­it­sky, is the best artis­tic col­lec­tion of the Asian re­gion, has the sec­ond in the world in im­por­tance and vol­ume col­lec­tion of works of the Rus­sian avant-garde.

It is note­wor­thy that dur­ing the ex­cur­sion to the mu­seum his guide dwelled in de­tail on the paint­ings de­voted to the Aral Sea.

As part of the me­dia tour, jour­nal­ists also vis­ited the necrop­o­lis of Miz­dahkan an ex­ten­sive com­plex that arose in the 4th cen­tury BC. This is one of the most mys­ti­cal places of Uzbek­istan, sur­rounded by se­crets, le­gends and myths. Necrop­o­lis in­cludes the fortress of Gyaur-Kala, sev­eral mau­soleums, a car­a­vanserai and a ceme­tery. The to­tal area is more than 200 hectares. There is an opin­ion that one of the tombs has heal­ing prop­er­ties - women come here pray­ing to get rid of in­fer­til­ity. Sep­a­rately it is worth men­tion­ing the mau­soleum of ShamunNabi, in­side of which there is a huge tomb in 25 me­ters (one of the largest in the world).

How­ever, ex­ca­va­tions have shown that there are no buri­als here, and its pur­pose was re­duced, most likely, to some kind of cult. The com­plex is a mon­u­ment, where the his­tory and cul­ture of Is­lam and Zoroas­tri­an­ism in­ter­twined. The Mus­lim ceme­tery, lo­cated on a vast ter­ri­tory, is still a place of pil­grim­age.

Do not leave in­dif­fer­ent and Nukus - it is de­vel­op­ing, ev­ery­where you can see new build­ings and tower cranes. In gen­eral, say­ing good­bye to Karakalpak­stan, I sin­cerely want to re­turn here again.

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