Aralkum, Uzbekistan – White flurries blur the sky and spread over the soil. A thin layer of fine powder blankets the shaking, twisted, skeletons of shrubs. The landscape resembles a dry, wintertime desert.
But it’s April in western Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation known for its cotton production – not cold weather. What looks like snow covering its landscape is actually salt laced with a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
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Less than 50 years ago, the salt dunes in the area were 15 metres under sea water.
This is Aralkum, or Aral Sands, the world’s youngest and most toxic desert covering an area the size of the Netherlands. It generates tens of thousands of tonnes of toxic salt-dust annually.
This salt-dust has been found as far as Greenland and Japan, and it contains pesticides, fertiliser, chemicals and runoff from the fields, farms and cities of five ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and from Afghanistan carried here by two mighty rivers whose annual flow once exceeded that of the Nile.
The rivers, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, once flowed into the Aral Sea.
But, the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water fell victim to Soviet designs to irrigate huge swaths of steppe and desert for cotton farming and urban development, and the sea, that along with its tributaries was once the source of one-sixth of all the fish caught in all of the Soviet Union, is dying.
While there is still a little bit of fish left, it is only sufficient for impoverished locals and greedy, corrupt fishing companies, which fight over the diminishing resource amid what the United Nations has dubbed the worst man-made environmental disaster in history.
Two sun-browned fishermen row a seasoned boat to their fishing nets despite a piercing, cold wind that sweeps the shores of Lake Sarybas. The lake was once a bay on the Aral Sea, but is now surrounded by a dike built by international donors to collect what little water does reach the former seaport of Muynak.
The nets, kept afloat by empty plastic bottles, stretch for dozens of metres in the bone-chilling water.
Other boats, old and rundown, dot the shoreline surrounded by yellow, dry reeds and garbage-strewn wasteland.
Several big, quivering northern snakeheads and a dozen smaller pike-perch and carp is all their nets landed.
For them and tens of thousands of people in Karakalpakstan, a western Uzbek region the size of Alaska, with a population of only a sparse 1.7 million, fishing is a simple matter of survival.
But, the fishermen face a hurdle larger than the drying sea.
No matter how dismal their catch, it is illegal because they did not obtain a permit from a private company that rents Sarybas from the state. The company named Makha Shakha has exclusive rights to procure whatever is caught in these waters.
It offers less than a dollar per kilogramme of fish to the fishermen and wages a fierce war against any possible competitors. If spotted by the company’s enforcers, the two fishermen face a fine of almost $10 per fish caught without a license.
The fishermen and the inspectors are on opposing sides of the semi-legal, corrupt industry that has for years been supplying pesticide-laced fish to a black market that functions outside sanitary and fiscal controls.
The industry has been dodging government regulations and devastating the lakes, pools, rivulets and canals that are fed by whatever water is left in the Amudarya.
“There are no more professional fishers, only poachers,” an elderly fisherman from Muynak said smoking a cheap cigarette outside his hut made of silt bricks and roofed with dry reeds.
“We catch fish until they catch us.”
Muynak now sits 150 kilometres away from the two remaining fragments of the Aral Sea. The northern Aral lies in neighboring Kazakhstan. It has been locked by a giant dam and is now being refilled with water from the Syrdarya, prompting the return of fishers to once-abandoned villages.
“Sometimes, I’d fly 3,000 metres [high] and see the dust storm at 2,100 – 2,300 metres,” Vladimir Zuev, a retired airplane pilot from Muynak, said recalling the dust storms he saw from his Antonov biplane.
As far as 250 kilometres away from the former seashore, the soil still looks snow-covered from the salt. Farming is impossible. Only desert shrubs, salt cedars and occasional apricot trees grow in Muynak.
Fruit and vegetables arrive from upstream communities and are sold at a weekly bazaar.
The water is salty and heavily polluted while of the five water treatment facilities built by international donors, only two are barely operational.
And, although local cows and goats have adapted to the meagre diet of desert shrubs, their milk is low in fat and bitter.
The occurrence of tuberculosis, anaemia, various cancers, liver and kidney diseases, and birth and genetic defects in Karakalpakstan is much higher than in the rest of the former Soviet Union and Communist bloc, and infant mortality rates of 75 per 1,000 newborns is seven to 10 times that of the US, according to local and international researchers.
Despite the desertification of the area, fish remains a staple food – and the main source of protein for the local population.
“Fish is all we need, don’t give us anything else,” Nadezhda Aniutina, a retired schoolteacher, said standing in her house with low ceilings and whitewashed, crumbling walls.
“We even make fish plov,” she said, referring to a traditional Central Asian dish usually made of rice, meat and carrots.
Local fish, however, are highly toxic because the organic pollutants are easily accumulated in their fat, especially in predator fish that top the food chain.
The chain contains elevated levels of chemical substances such as resistant organic pollutants, which include dioxins and other substances linked to pesticide residues, according to Joost van der Meer, a Dutch researcher who headed a research department at Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity.
“Consuming fish from these waters around the Aral Sea is not likely to be very healthy, especially for small children,” he said. “Results may be increased cancer risk or learning and developmental disabilities.”
To the fishing companies – known locally as “leasers”, such as Makha Shakha – fishing is all about profits and nothing else.
Since 2003, more than a dozen such companies have been renting three sizable lakes around Muynak – along with countless small bodies of water in the Amudarya delta.
Locals call the fishing companies “mafia” and claim they use banned close-meshed nets, electrocution, and even chlorine to catch fish. They insist the “leasers” hire former convicts to intimidate and beat up those who sell their catch to competing buyers.
These buyers – who arrive in Muynak in rundown cars or minivans from central Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand and often offer potatoes, onions and fruit instead of cash – also often get beaten and have their cars damaged, while corrupt officials turn a blind eye.
“There’s a war between the middlemen and the leasers,” said the owner of a clandestine smokehouse in Muynak. He proudly claimed he uses sawdust to smoke his fish instead of the dry dung pellets that his competitors use.
The feuding fishermen, “leasers”, and middlemen “created a whole shadow economy, because no fish is sold in shops, while bazaars in cities and towns are flooded with fish,” said Lydia Pavlovskaya, a senior researcher who studied fish species and their environment at the Science Academy in Nukus, the regional capital.
The bazaars of western Uzbekistan are full of raw or smoked fish that costs up to $15 per kilogramme, although less than 2,000 tonnes of fish were caught in Karakalpakstan last year, according to government-run Uzbek media.
The fish is usually sold from the outdoor counters that have no refrigerators or even glass cases.
It’s never certified or packed, and the vendors proudly assure their buyers that it comes directly from Muynak – even when it’s fished far upstream, in the massive reservoirs that redirect Amudarya’s waters to cotton and rice fields.
“There is nothing but the plunder of fish resources,” Pavlovskaya said.
Uzbek officials refused to comment on the allegations.
Representatives of three fishing companies operating in Karakalpakstan also refused comment, and in one case threatened to sue this reporter.
Unsurprisingly, Muynak residents have little sympathy for the “leasers”, but their frustration runs deeper. They cautiously criticise Uzbek authorities and loudly blame the defunct Soviet state.
“Moscow started this whole mess but does not help with a damn thing,” said ex-pilot Zuev.
Moscow did start the mess, but some Central Asian governments keep it going.
Shallow and dotted with islands – the word “Aral” means “island” – the sea was once home to some 40 species of fish, including the endemic Aral salmon.
The surrounding oasis was covered with dense brushwood, flood-lands and marshes with a stunning ecosystem that included flamingos, Central Asian hyenas, and the now-extinct Turan tiger.
Muynak was a thriving seaport with a fleet, beaches and resorts.
Cattle grazing, fur-farming and fishing employed thousands, but the town’s main employer was a huge cannery that worked 24/7 processing hundreds of tonnes of fish a year.
But Communist Moscow’s utopian plans to remake Central Asia were poorly executed. Tens of thousands of kilometres of unlined irrigation canals were hastily built, while dams and hydropower stations disrupted fish spawning routes.
The desiccation of the sea became obvious in the 1960s.
Centralised fishing stopped in Muynak in 1983, and the cannery worked for several more years on frozen fish delivered from the Caspian Sea and other parts of the Soviet Union.
Ten years later, the cannery’s director committed suicide – while the sea lost 90 percent of its volume.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov never misses an opportunity to lambaste Soviet policies in Central Asia, yet his government prefers to retain their most dreadful legacy – the cotton industry with excessive irrigation methods.
Although cotton exports bring more than $1bn in annual revenue, Uzbek authorities have yet to invest in rebuilding the unlined canals.
“It means no hope for Karakalpaks,” said Moscow-based Central Asia analyst Daniil Kislov. “It’s a slow genocide.”
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