Once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea, the Aral is now mostly a wasteland—and, perhaps, a grim parable of modern times. It has been called the worst man-made environmental disaster in history.
The Aral lies within two countries in Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But back in the sixties, when it started seriously drying up, it was the much-abused property of the Soviet Union, which took the region’s traditional irrigation practices to new (and toxic) extremes in an effort to bolster cotton production. Evidence suggests that the Soviets were fully aware their methods would drain the sea. By the seventies, the Aral had shrunk by 20 percent. Fishing towns were left high and dry as the waters receded, and marine life died off as salinization levels spiked. By 1986, all the Aral’s native fish were gone.
Today, 90 percent of the old Aral Sea is desert—but hardly a normal one. “Nowhere was the desert’s simple splendor,” travel writer Tom Bissell notes in Chasing the Sea. “This was a desert turned into an oasis turned into a desert again, a transforming tug-of-war that had been inarguably concluded.”
Now that Kazakhstan has dammed off the portion that lies within its borders, the Aral is a tale of two seas. Kazakhstan’s partially revived “Little Aral” offers shreds of hope. Water levels have risen, and native carp and sturgeon have been reintroduced. The fishing industry is making a tentative comeback.
Things look less optimistic in Uzbekistan, where Moynaq, once a bustling port, now resembles a ghost town. Dust storms throttle the landscape; rusted ships lie abandoned in the sand. “What once must have been a lovely vista of foam-etched sea is now an empty yellow wilderness broken only by an occasional salt marsh,” Bissell writes. “But it, too, is beautiful, terribly so. The wind sounds like waves.”