ARAL: A DAMMED SEA
In the middle of the vast, arid region between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan lies the Aral Sea, a land-locked body of salt water. Once home to hundreds of species of fish which supported nearby communities for centuries, the sea was almost irreversibly drained during Soviet rule.
In “The Virgin Lands Project”, Soviet economic planners decided to divert the three rivers that feed the sea to irrigate this arid part of the Soviet Union for cotton, rice and melon cultivation. Soon, the water level started to fall and the surface area contracted. By 1988, the Sea held a mere 20% of its original volume. Towns and fishing communities such as Aralsk were left miles from the sea shore, leaving the local people jobless and desperate.
The world woke up to this ecological disaster decades later, once the Soviet Union had collapsed, and satellite images showed a sea at 10% of its original size. Despite predictions that it would disappear altogether, the World Bank, together with the Kazakh government, funded the construction of the Kokaral dyke in 2005, which was designed to replenish the Northern section of the Aral Sea.
Though the surrounding area remains painfully depressed, the Northern part of the sea is rising, and quicker than expected. Men who had long given up hope of continuing in their traditional livelihood now congregate at this remote dyke, which acts as a funnel, concentrating their catch. Most camp here in the arid desert for the three-month season, fishing both day and night.
Though their catch is by no means reliable or plentiful, their almost biblical tale has taken a miraculous turn, as this community, with no other means of income, are able to fish again.