Croute de sel à l’ouzbèke

Capture d’écran 2014-05-27 à 18.28.39Karakalpakstan was once a prosperous region thanks to the fishing industry. It even received the Lenine medal twice, for supplying fish tins to soldiers. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has obviously resulted in unemployment and economic hardship.

In Moynak, the former epicenter of the local economy, and now only 8000 inhabitants, a local museum has opened and very old-style tells this story. You will find below a mix of my images and some footage from the film… It’s worth watching…

The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health problems. The retreat of the sea has reportedly also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer…

Moynaq, 210km north of Nukus, encapsulates more visibly than anywhere the absurd tragedy of the Aral Sea. Once one of the sea’s two major fishing ports, it now stands more than 150km from the water. What remains of Moynaq’s fishing fleet lies rusting on the sand, beside depressions marking the town’s last futile efforts in the early 1980s to keep channels open to the shore.

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One of the most amazing things about the Aral Sea disaster is that it was no accident. The Soviet planners who fatally tapped the rivers that fed the Aral Sea, in order to irrigate new cotton fields, expected the sea to dry up. They also wanted to bring water to Central Asia by a huge canal from Siberia, not to replenish the Aral Sea but to expand cotton production still further.

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When camping on the shore, the guide offered me to have a swim. But knowing that residues of pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants used on the cotton fields found their way into the sea… I skipped.

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In addition, the soviets had a military base on an island in the middle of the sea –  Vozrozhdenia Island – on which they were keeping many samples of bacteriologic weapons. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, they left the base hurriedly, leaving their shit behind…

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… In 2001, when the US got under the attack of anthrax, the government even thought it might have been sourced there, on this Aral Sea abandoned base. As a result, the USA worked together with the local authorities to clean the place for good… Ironically, in pious Russian language, Vozrozhdenia means rebirth… So reassuring…

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To restore the Aral would require irrigation from the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya to cease for three years, or at least a slashing of the irrigated area from over 70,000 to 40,000 sq km; in other words, a complete restructuring of the economies of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. No-one is seriously considering this.

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In 2003 the little channel still connecting the northern and southern seas was blocked by a 12.8km-long dike, preventing further water loss from the northern sea (on the Kazakh side), but condemning the southern sea to oblivion.

Apparently, Russia has been talking about feeding the Aral Sea with a Russian river but from the talks I’ve had locally, I can tell you that here, in Moynak, no-one believes it.

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Any future ? I don’t think so…

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