Aral’s Post-Soviet Dust

Just over 50 years ago, the Aral Sea was one of the largest lakes in the world. However, due to man-made and possibly natural factors, it lost more than 90% of its original area, leaving a desert landscape and the population on the brink of survival.

The Aral issue dates back over 150 years. When Uzbekistan became part of the USSR, large-scale cotton cultivation began. However, the region itself is deserted. There are few large bodies of water. Irrigation canals were built without proper waterproofing, leading to the gradual shallowing of the rivers and the sea. Environmentalists first sounded the alarm in the 1980s, but the USSR was going through significant changes, and no one cared about the Aral Sea back then.

Over time the sea split into two parts: the Northern (Small) and Southern (Big) Arals. The northern part is a former bay in Kazakhstani territory. It was separated from the rapidly shallowing Southern Aral by a dam after the USSR’s collapse. Since the Small Aral is fed by the waters of the Syrdarya River, its salinity has begun to decrease over time. This allowed the fishery to be restored. However, the Amu Darya River stopped reaching the Southern Sea. So the Southern Aral, primarily situated in Uzbekistan, continues to dry up.

There is a small museum of the history of the Aral Sea in the semi-abandoned town of Moynaq. Several ships that once docked there now sit nearby in the midst of a desert. Locals call the desert Aralkum, by analogy with Karakum and Kyzylkum. It takes 4 hours to get to the coast by jeep.

During the Soviet era, Moynaq had a major fish canning plant, one of the nation’s largest. Now there is nothing left. The streets are nearly deserted, except for the central one. The wind blows endless dust through the ghost town. According to the estimates, there are up to 18 000 residents in Moynaq, but in reality, many have left Uzbekistan for work elsewhere. The town airport was closed due to a lack of passengers.

The sea’s recession turned the Republic of Karakalpakstan, home to the Southern Aral Sea, into one of Uzbekistan’s poorest regions. The reason is the climate; it’s very dry, and the soil has high salinity. Besides, big deposits of pesticides and other toxic chemicals accumulated at the bottom of the sea during the Soviet era. Today, people are breathing them, which leads to various diseases, including oncology.

The Amu Darya water is of poor quality. The tap water is cloudy and udrinkable. Several centimetres of dirt sludge down the bottom of the jar after a while. Locals must either filter or boil it to be able to drink it, or better yet, buy imported water. Tórtkúll, a town in Karakalpakstan, hosts a large water purification plant, built by the Americans, but the degree of purification is low there, as locals say.

Uzbek oil and gas companies have taken advantage of the situation by drilling on the former Aral Sea bed. It’s easier than drilling underwater. “Much of the revenue flows to Tashkent and is distributed there. They don’t give much to us, Karakalpaks, ” the residents say.

The sea continues to recede by about 20–30 meters annually. Despite that, many Uzbek maps still depict the Aral Sea at its Soviet size. As if nothing had happened. This suggests that the topic is somewhat tabooed by Uzbekistani authorities. It is known that the police detained a Japanese photographer, taking pictures on the bridge over the extremely shallow Amu Darya, and asked him to delete the photographs.

 The Aral region is fraught with prohibitions. Biological weapons were tested on one of the islands under the USSR. Two years ago, that place was razed to the ground by order of the Ministry of Defence of Uzbekistan, since it was visited by various urban “stalkers”. Not far away in Ústirt was the area of chemical weapons testing in the 1980s, including, according to locals, the notorious Novichok.

The political economy of the Big Aral has changed, with gas production being just one aspect. The salinity of the water is about 150–160 grammes per litre. It is two times lower than the Dead Sea’s salinity but still inhospitable to fish. However, some microalgae and plankton species persist. The Artemia crustacean eggs are harvested on an industrial scale. This is a popular food for breeding fish in artificial reservoirs as well as for aquarium fish. Artemia is also sold to the Chinese, who use it in perfumery. Several companies representatives purchasing such biomaterials constantly work in Tashkent.

Karakalpaks, though, are a simple workforce. There was an uprising in Nókis, the capital of Karakalpakstan, in 2022, protesting against Uzbekistan’s autonomy policy. Since then, the centre of Nókis has been renovated, but most of the peripheral areas remain impoverished slums.