Guest post by Gu Yue, global traveller.
Forty years ago, Uzbekistan’s south was home to the fourth biggest inland sea in the world, the Aral Sea. The town Muynak, which relied on the lake for living, was a prosperous fishing port, hauling in millions of tonnes of fish every year.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union started developing the cotton industry in central Asia, diverting the waters of the river Amu Darya, which flows from the Tianshan and Kunlun mountains into the Aral Sea, to the desert regions of Uzbekistan’s south and Turkmenistan. Although the total output of cotton rose by only 20% between 1960 and 1980, which was largely due to the poor condition of the soil, the amount of water flowing into the Aral Sea shrank by 90%. Cotton growth requires large amounts of water.
By the late 1980s, as a result of its shrinking, the lake had split into a large southern part and a smaller northern portion; its eastern and southern shorelines had receded 80 kilometres. Today, Muynak, once located on the southern shore, has become a town in a desert, with the ships of the bygone days stranded on the dried-up lakebed. With the waters receding, the weather started to deteriorate, the temperature difference between winter and summer increased drastically, and the average dry season, once 30 to 35 days a year, now lasts 120 to 150 days. One hundred and thirty-five wild animal species have died out in the region, leaving a meager 38. Those people who had a chance to leave did so one after another, and the roughly 8,000 residents left now mainly rely on agriculture and animal husbandry to eke out a living.
A man in his fifties who we met in Muynak told us about his stories as a young fisherman, and how he grew up swimming in the waters of the lake. Pointing with his thumb to a rusting ship next to our tent, he told us how he used to go out fishing, what a great ship it was and how proud it would make him. Now, he stares, day in day out, at the wrecks of the fishing trawlers, which will never see the sea again, thinking about the good old days.
Not far from the rusting hulks is a large stone with a map of the Aral Sea in the past on the one side, and a present map on the other. The man showed us that the Muynak of 1963 was located right on the southern shoreline. Then he walked to the other side and pointed at the town in 2008 – a lonely blue spot on a white wall, 150 kilometres away from the lake.
Read more about the tragedy of the Aral Sea here on chinadialogue: Water tensions in central Asia by Isabel Hilton; Water woes in Kazakhstan by Jack Carino.