Uzbekistan, 2017

Moynaq, The Town Haunted By The Ghost Of The Aral Sea

The Republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, is little known, and seldom visited by Western travelers. A part of the former Soviet Union until 1991 when it gained independence, Uzbekistan has the distinction of being one of the two double landlocked countries on Earth. In other words, all five of the countries that border on Uzbekistan are landlocked themselves.

Despite its steadfastly continental geographic status Uzbekistan was, up into the late 20th century, home to a bustling port city called Moynaq that was the center of a large and thriving fishing industry. Moynaq once sat on the southern shore of the Aral Sea which was the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. Today Moynaq ia surrounded on all sides by the Kyzyl Kum Desert and what’s left of the Aral Sea is more than 150 km away.

The recent history of the Aral Sea is a tale of one of the greatest human-caused environmental disasters of all time. It is also a story of governmental arrogance, ignorance, and greed.

At its peak the fishing industry in Moynaq was very large-scale. In the 1920’s during a famine in the Volga region of Russia, Lenin personally appealed to the fishermen of the Aral Sea for help to feed the starving. Within just days, over 20,000 tons of fish was harvested and shipped westward to to the famine zone saving many Russian lives. One-sixth of all of the fish harvested in the Soviet Uinion once came from the Aral Sea. Forty thousand people used to be employed in Moynaq’s fishing industry. So what happened to Moynaq and the Aral Sea?

In the post war years the government of the Soviet Union hatched a plan for a gigantic irrigation project that would allow the Kyzyl Kum Desert in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan’s most westerly region and where Moynaq lies) to produce a variety of crops. One crop in particular – cotton – was given priority over all others as it could be exported and return hard currency for the Soviet treasury. The waters of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that fed into the Aral Sea were diverted into a network of irrigation channels. Soviet planners gave no consideration to either the health of the Aral Sea or to the welfare of the people living near it.

The irrigation channels were rarely waterproofed and vast amounts of water were allowed to seep into the ground before reaching the fields of crops. The desert sun caused the evaporation of even more of the water. It was estimated that from the Qaraqum Canal, the largest in the region, that between 35 – 75% of its water was wasted in this manner.

To make matters worst, proper crop rotation was generally not employed and this resulted in a rapid depletion of soil nutrients. To counter that problem progressively increasing amounts of artificial fertilizers were dumped in the fields. That, along with heavy use of pesticides and herbicides led to groundwater contamination and toxic runoff into the Aral Sea.

By the 1960’s the Aral Sea began to exhibit signs of distress from the loss of its sources of water. The shoreline receded more each year. As the volume of water in the Aral Sea shrank, its salinity increased in proportion and the concentrations of poisonous agricultural effluent rose in tandem with the salt.

As the Aral Sea continued to lose water much of the nearby farmland became too saline as well due to over-irrigation. Windblown salt from the now dry, exposed sea floor and the hazardous levels of agricultural chemicals in the environment led to an epidemic of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. Alarmingly high rates of anemia spread through the populace of Karakalpakstan. These and other diseases remain widespread in Karakalpakstan to this day.

By 2007 the Aral Sea had

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