Al Jazeera World

People of the Lake

The drying up of the Aral Sea was an environmental and human tragedy, but can Kazakhstan undo this man-made disaster?

Editor’s note: Since this film was made, the Small Aral Sea has remained stable although is still only about half its original size. But its salinity has returned to levels that can sustain the pre-1960 ecosystem. Commercial fishing has increased and many people have come back to the coast, reviving their small farming and livestock. The Large Aral Sea has, however, continued its retreat and salinisation.

Filmmaker: Ensar Altay

This is a crime against nature. The drought of the Aral Sea is a man-made tragedy.

by Sergei Azimov, film producer

The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the fourth-largest lake in the world, an immense body of fresh water covering a surface area of 68,000 square kilometres.

Two port cities were located on it – Aralsk in Kazakhstan and Moynaq in Uzbekistan. Both featured thriving fishing communities and the lake itself held some 22 different varieties of fish, four of which could only be found in the Aral.

But then the Soviet Union decided to boost cotton farming by constructing dams on the two large rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers.

This diverted these two giant rivers away from the sea into the deserts further south to irrigate large tracts of land. It proved disastrous for the Aral Sea.

Soil erosion and evaporation of the waters meant that by the 1970s, the Aral Sea had diminished by 20 percent. By 1980, 30 percent of the sea had vanished.

That figure rose to 40 percent in 1990. And today, 90 percent of the Aral Sea has disappeared, becoming desert.

Fishermen were among those most affected by the drying-up of the Aral Sea. In 1960, total fish production from the sea was 45,000 tonnes.

This dropped to 17,000 tonnes in 1970. The fish stock decreased further over the following years and families who had lived in Aralsk for generations, making their living from fishing, either migrated or had to find new ways to earn money.

Between 1980 and 2000, some 45,000 people who had lived around the lake migrated to different areas of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

“There used to be five factories here …. Boats came here from the Aral Sea to load up with cargo. Times have changed,” says Kudaibergen Sarzhanov, a former Soviet minister of fisheries.

“The Aral Sea began to dry up. As it began to dry up, my heart grew heavy. We began to struggle and didn’t know what to do. There were days we cried …. The ecological conditions became worse. When the water dried, the salty dust that spread caused deaths,” says Sarzhanov.

Many predicted that the sea could never return, but the government of Kazakhstan has set out to reverse this man-made environmental disaster.

Ahmedov Zhangali, a former fisherman, says, “maybe there will be water in the future. If the water returns, neighbours will return to fishing. The return of the water means food for people and for the animals.”

As Kazakhs continue to come to terms with the drying up of the Aral Sea and the man-made ecological disaster of epic proportions it represents, Al Jazeera travelled to Kazakhstan and found a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon.