Disappearing Source of Life: The Story of the Aral Sea and Oktyabr


I stood in the middle of a desert and wondered “where in the world am I?”

The bright blue sky contrasted with the beige and baren earth at my feet. There were small pale green shrubs and small white shells that dotted the dry ground. In this desert, I was told that mighty waters from the Aral Sea once flourish in the spot I was standing. I closed my eyes and imagined that all that was dry was replaced an expansive body of water.

Once the world’s fourth-largest sea, what’s left of the Aral is now mostly a dry and lifeless wasteland. The Aral Sea, in Central Asia, is geographically located in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In the 1960’s, when the water crisis “began”, the Aral Sea fell into the hands of the Soviet Union’s extreme forms of irrigation. Water was drained to support cotton production and urban development. Essentially, the sea was being emptied. Problems of climate change and other environmental factors only further threatened this reality.

NASA Earth Observatory

I’m quite a visual person, so to see these changes from an aerial point of view is quite a shocking reality.

“Graveyard of Ships” is a site to recognise the environmental tragedy of the Aral Sea

Going to the Aral Sea was a moving and emotional experience. If you are new to the story of the Aral Sea, let me simply say that it’s a story that should be heard by the world – dubbed as one of the worse “environmental disasters” of our time, it’s also a painstaking example of what man-made damages we can cause in a short period of time.

The aim of our visit is to raise awareness about sustainable water usage. Our trip was arranged by The Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC) who is committed to supporting the environmental development in Uzbekistan.

 

From City to Desert

Landscape of a dried up Aral Sea

I took a plane from Tashkent, the country’s capital, to Nukus, the capital of the sixth-largest city in Uzbekistan and also the capital of Karakalpakstan Republic – an autonomous state.

When I told local people I would be travelling to Karaklapakstan to see the Aral Sea, it was clear from their immediate reaction that this wasn’t a trip most people make (in their lifetime) – the remoteness and perhaps thought of venturing so far to see desolation stopped people from making this travel-investment.

I had this opportunity to join a media trip with over 20 other Uzbek and Russian-speaking journalists, press correspondents, TV hosts, and bloggers. We all came together to discover and, most importantly, share the message of the Aral Sea. We drove in jeeps for hours, traversing through the dry and barren land.

It was a bumpy and dusty drive. I was amazed at the driver’s capacity to navigate and create roads along the way. Our “mission” was to finally reach the sea and witness what was remaining.

Arriving at the Aral Sea

When we finally arrived at the sea – it was an emotional feeling. On one hand, I couldn’t help but rejoice that I was able to see and feel the water. On the other hand, I reflected how this was it was rapidly disappearing and perhaps it would be my last time I get a chance to see it.

Locals preparing our meal in the desert
A young girl at the yurt camps
Yurt under the stars

 

Oktyabr

There are some faces you remember more clearly than others, some faces that particularly stand out because their story resonates with you or moves you. For me, one of the faces I will not forget on this journey is Oktyabr Dospanov.

A warm and friendly face of someone whose knowledge, about everything from ancient history to ecology to ethnography, was expansive. He could share with you the migration path of nomads centuries ago and then tell you about the unique plankton that floats in the sea – to him, the history and science were seemingly connected and equally important.

Oktyabr explained to us that when he was a child he used to drink the water of the Aral Sea. Something to clarify is that the Aral Sea is actually not a sea, but it was a once an immense lake and body of fresh water. Now, however, what’s left of the water is an incredibly high concentration of salt.

 

“Water is life, not just my life. But my country’s life. We are thinking how do we get safe water. Water to agriculture. Water to homes. When we say water… this is life.”

He continued and said, “The young generation needs to think about how to save this life, this water, these ecological systems. It is very important to think about life in this way”. 

Canyons in the desert

From racing in Jeeps across vast open deserts to sleeping in yurts. This journey was intense, beautiful, and a one-in-a-life-time experience. Meeting Oktyabr was a highlight of the journey since he embodied the struggle felt by many people over the generations. He also was a beacon of light by sharing his hope that young people need to be critical and ensure a sustainable future for next generations.

In the next coming post, I will share about the efforts and actions being taken around the country to ensure sustainable water usage and development. Water is a source of life and I will discover this meaning more fully in the coming days!

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