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The Aral Sea

Aral Sea fishermen. Photo from Muynak museum.The Aral Sea today is the infamous inland sea-turned-desert, the one historians and environmental scientists still place among the worst ecological disasters ever. The fishery died in the 1980s, after the Soviet government drained the sea to feed thirsty cotton fields planted in the inhospitable landscape surrounding it. Once a colossal geographic feature – at 26,000 square miles (67,300 square kilometers), it was the fourth largest inland water body on earth in terms of surface area – the Aral shrank to hold just one-tenth of its original volume, becoming a tragic shadow of itself.

The Amu Darya – historically, the Oxus – is the longest river in Central Asia, stemming from the snowcapped Hindu Kush, and twisting north through 1,500 miles of harsh steppe before fanning into a delta at the south end of the Aral Sea. That’s how it used to work, at least. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union built huge farms in the perennially arid steppe, digging long canals to water them. By 1965, the Amu Darya stretched across seven million acres (three million hectares) of wheat and cotton, two of the planet’s thirstiest crops. The river’s flow fell drastically, from 28,000 cubic feet per second (793 cubic meters) to just 5,500 cubic feet (156 cubic meters).

Eventually, the Amu Darya receded from the Aral, and it now ends at a dam, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) away. (The Syr Darya, the river that feeds the Aral’s north end, also suffered from irrigation, but has maintained a tenuous connection to the sea).

Boats at the Aral Sea coast. Photo credit O.DospanovWhen the farm boom began in the 1960s, the Aral had a commercial fishery that brought in more than 40,000 tons of fish each year, hauled from the sea by ships more than a hundred feet long. Thousands of fishermen worked the Aral, and others found jobs in processing plants, canneries and railroad yards, where train cars full of fish left daily for markets in Moscow. There were 19 villages and two cities on the sea – about 40,000 people lived in Muynak, in the south, and twice as many in Aralsk, in the north. But as the Aral shrank – to about half its original size by the mid-1980s – it receded from the harbors, forcing the fishermen first to extend their ports with deep canals, and later to use helicopters to get their catch to the processing plants on special occasions.

Worse, in the early 1980s, the fish disappeared. As less freshwater entered from the rivers, the Aral, which had always been brackish, became increasingly salty. Salinity climbed from 10 to 30 grams per liter, almost as briny as the ocean. All 24 species of native fish vanished, and almost overnight, the fishing industry collapsed. The most skilled fishermen abandoned their ships on sandbars as the Soviet government transferred them to other fisheries on the Caspian and Baltic seas. In some places the rusty ships remain, grim reminders of how quickly the industry dissolved.

In the late 1980s, as its people continued to suffer, the Aral split in two, becoming what’s now known as the North Aral — small but moderately deep — and the South Aral, whose deep western side and shallow eastern side have separated into two distinct water bodies.

Our travel agency organises tours to the Aral Sea for those who want to see and feel the subsequences of one of the world's greatest tragedy. If you are interested to visit Aral Sea you can find more information about the tours here.