Asleep on the Deserted Sea
One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was. I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago. It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader. I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since. Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear. I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade. Today it is less than 10% of its original volume. I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day. Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea. Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing. It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior. While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.
My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains. The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert. The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal. The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan. Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation. Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length. Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert. The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.
Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater. However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change. The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub. This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River. Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was. We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea. The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak. Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday. Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum. However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining. There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq. The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things. None of this was apparent from a brief visit. The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited. My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies. We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.
At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town. However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself. Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon. It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea. The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape. Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells. When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked. After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard. This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire. Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes. Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal. In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life. I couldn’t help but feel angry. It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet. At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped. We will see the Aralization of the planet.
Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment. Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea. It is a tragic loss for the planet. The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years. Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries. Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income. Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American. Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea. However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States. For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century. 56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation. 32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008. Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable. Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape. The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability. It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability. One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless. While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks. So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.