The Shrunken Sea The Aral Sea Is Disappearing—and With It, the Identity of a Nation

No one knows exactly how many have left Karakalpakstan, a former Soviet Republic nestled deep within the ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of Central Asia, now under the custody of Uzbekistan. Official figures put it at over 50,000 in the last 10 years alone—roughly 10% of the population—and this figure doesn’t include the people inside smugglers’ vans, the human cargo who pay around $500 each to obtain falsified passports from government officials before slipping out under the radar of the authorities, voyaging towards Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan in search of a new life. But although the numbers remain disputed, the reasons for the exodus are clear. Karakalpakstan is the site of what scientists have called the largest man-made ecological disaster of the 20th century, a climate catastrophe so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten”iz—a sea which fled its shores.

The story of Karakalpakstan starts and ends in cotton, with greed, forced labor and disaster stitched in between. Drive down almost any of the battered tarmac roads wending their way through the region’s desiccated farmland—no easy feat, as the repressive Uzbek government blocks international journalists from visiting the area for fear of giving publicity to a growing anti-Uzbek sentiment amongst the ethnic Karakalpak population—and you”ll see mountains of “white gold” piling up in the district collection points. There, farmers drop off cotton by the ton in accordance with government directives. Chances are that most of the cotton in your wardrobe originated here; Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest cotton exporter and unlike its neighbors, the industry remains almost entirely in the hands of the state. The price paid to growers is fixed each year by ministers—80 Uzbek som (the local currency) per kilo in 2009, far below what the flossy thread fetches in the open market across the border in Kazakhstan. And in Karakalpakstan the annual increases have failed to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living. Unemployment is rampant, and poverty pervasive.

Cotton has thrust a reluctant Karakalpakstan onto the global map—home to one of the world’s biggest inland bodies of water, which is disappearing into thin air. In the first half of the 20th century, the Aral Sea was the pride of Central Asia—42,000 square miles of saline waves, abundant fish and island resorts that drew the Russian elite for summer holidays. There were also cotton fields fanning out from its shoreline. These rolling acres of profit would be the sea’s downfall. In the 1940s, work began on irrigation canals that diverted water from the sea’s two main tributaries—the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers—into the fields. By the 1960s the Aral was losing up to 60 cubic kilometers of water annually; by the 1980s, the level of the sea was dropping almost 10 centimeters per month. Geologists and environmentalists flocked to witness and condemn the decay, but the architects behind this transformation remained unmoved. “Nature’s error” was how one Soviet engineer dismissed the sea.

Today the sea has shrunk to a mere 10% of its original size, leaving in its wake the world’s most recently formed desert, from which more than 220,000 tons of salt and sand are whipped up by the wind each day and dumped over Karakalpakstan and other nearby regions. Lung-related diseases in the republic are three times higher than the Uzbek average; the fishing industry, Karakalpakstan’s financial lifeblood, has collapsed.

The Aral Sea disaster didn’t just plunge Karakalpakstan into turmoil. It also reshaped how locals view themselves. The republic’s large and vibrant Kazakh population has returned to their ethnic homeland in droves, attracted by a Kazakh government-sponsored program en-couraging the immigration of its diaspora. In some villages, entire Kazakh-language schools have been shut down because every pupil has left. The Aral also stretches across the border up into Kazakhstan, where, to the north, a series of new dam projects are salvaging that part of the sea, fueling further optimism in what is already a relatively vibrant economy.

It is no coincidence that the wholesale movement of a population from one side of this once-mighty lake to the other mirrors nature’s contrasting fortunes. Almost any Kazakhs who can leave are doing so, however wrenching the transition may be. “At my age, it’s hard to adapt to a new climate,” said one Karakalpak-born Kazakh farmer whose two younger brothers had already left for Kazakhstan and who was close to following in their footsteps. “I”m proud to be a Karakalpak; this is my land, and who wants to change their motherland? But there are no jobs. It’s inevitable.”

A former Aral Sea fisherman must now tend sheep.

For ethnic Karakalpaks, the choices are even harder. Many have moved to Uzbekistan and stayed there; others use illicit fixers to alter the ethnicity printed on their passports so that they, too, can appear Kazakh and escape across the border. Others have angrily rejected their homeland’s link with Uzbekistan, widely blamed for not doing enough to mitigate the disaster’s effects, and a nascent movement for independence is beginning to take shape. In this region, say travel writers Mayhew and MacLeod, “only the past is as unpredictable as the future.”

Despite a widespread nostalgia for the Aral’s bountiful resources, the sea will not return to these parts. Globally the trend is heading in the opposite direction, with regions as diverse as California, northwestern India and the Nile Delta all facing the prospect of severe water shortages over the next half-century. In some places water tables are falling due to over-extraction; elsewhere upstream agricultural demands have caused domestic water deficits. The result is that one-third of the arable land on the planet is being destroyed, and the problem is only set to deepen.

Currently the growth in the use of water stands at double that of world population growth. In the Middle East, water is cited by some analysts as the next trigger for geopolitical conflict; globally, the United Nations has identified 300 potential flashpoints over water insecurity. “Water,” claimed Mikhail Gorbachev, “like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people.” It is the competitive resource of our generation.

It may be a nation that almost nobody in the West has heard of, but Karakalpakstan is in many ways an indicator for what can happen when anthropogenic climate change and water shortages are projected onto politically volatile and economically vulnerable societies.