Chapter 2

The Aral Experiment (excerpt)





Waves from the sparkling Aral Sea used to wash
ashore next to this monument in Muynak, Uzbekistan.

An Uzbek resident looks out over
what’s left of the shrinking Aral Sea.


Muynak’s mighty fishing fleet now rests on
a dry lakebed; tombstones in a ship graveyard.

What once was a seemingly endless
expanse of water is now a sea of sand.
IN THE FAR NORTHWEST CORNER of arid Uzbekistan, in the sandy village of Muynak, stands a memorial to local soldiers who died in World War II. Here in the heart of Central Asia, once part of the sprawling Soviet empire, men boarded trains in the early 1940s for the Russian front to help their Soviet comrades beat back a threatening German invasion. Many of those soldiers, of course, did not return home alive. In Muynak, hundreds of names are listed at the base of the memorial’s tilting obelisk. When it was built, the memorial was perched at the edge of the sapphire Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. The monument made for a picturesque setting where relatives could pay their respects and leave a bouquet of flowers in the fresh sea air, while waterfowl flew overhead, shorebirds probed the water’s edge, and cormorants dove for minnows in the shallows. The war memorial at Muynak has since become a less inspiring place. The towering obelisk sits atop a dry thirty-foot cliff overlooking a sprawling scrub-brush desert that stretches for miles beyond the horizon. The cool sea breeze has been supplanted by a hot desert wind; the crashing waves have been replaced by aimless drifts of desert sand. At the base of the cliff, cattle wander among sparse vegetation, and off in the distance one can see the remnants of a ship graveyard, where Muynak’s once-mighty fishing fleet was left to die after the waters of the Aral Sea faded away. At one time there were more than a hundred old fishing boats in this nautical cemetery—surreal rusting hulks beached awkwardly in the desert sand—but barely a dozen remain. Local officials had most of the boats dismantled for scrap, partly for money, and partly to remove these sad reminders that Muynak was once one of the most productive fishing villages in all of the Soviet Union.

What happened to the Aral? In the 1950s, ambitious Soviet planners embarked on a massive water program designed to make the desert bloom. Engineers redirected much of the river flow that fed the sea, diverting the water to a massive complex of agricultural fields. The Soviets succeeded in their crusade; Central Asia became a booming marketplace—particularly for cotton. But this economic conquest had a severe ecological cost. In just a few decades, the water diversions left the Aral in ruins. Cut off from its freshwater feeder streams, the sea began shrinking. A generation later, the disastrous ecological effects of this grand plan have left thousands of Central Asians in shock. In less than half a century, water levels in the Aral have fallen by eighty vertical feet. The sea has lost 75 percent of its surface area and 90 percent of its volume.1 The farmer’s gain was the fisherman’s loss—jobs dried up with the water, leaving chronic unemployment and social paralysis. The climate is different too. Like the North American Great Lakes, the old Aral moderated temperature extremes near the shoreline. Now Muynak’s summers arehotter, winters colder, and regional precipitation patterns have changed.

In recent years, as Great Lakes officials have contemplated a new water-management system, the Aral Sea disaster has been invoked repeatedly by environmentalists and others as an ecological rallying cry—an example of what not to become. “Even the grandest of resources have dried-up or fallen to misuse,” declared the environmental group Clean Wisconsin in a 2004 press release.2 “Consider the vivid examples of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the Colorado River in [the] Southwestern United States.” Because many Great Lakes residents who refer to the Aral Sea know little about it, and because most have never been there, this chapter attempts to provide a firsthand look at the Aral Sea’s desiccation. The purpose of this chapter is not to “prove” or “allege” that an Aral-like draining of the Great Lakes is in the offing, but rather to shed light on a place that is often referred to, but little understood. That way, as officials contemplate passage of the Great Lakes water Compact, regional citizens can decide for themselves whether there are any lessons to be learned from the Aral Sea’s destruction...