Where Has All of the Water Gone?

One of the areas that I wanted to visit since the beginning of this expedition was the Aral Sea. The Area Sea straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and these days is not really much of a sea anymore. In fact, experts believe that the desertification of the entire body of water could be complete in the next 15-20 years. The Aral Sea was once a massive body of water that was home to a variety of life and supported a vibrant fishing industry. Today, little is left of the fishing industry and the shrinking waters have become too contaminated with pollutants and chemical weapons waste to sustain much life of any type. The Aral Sea has recently split into the North and South Aral Seas and it is expected to divide again as it continues to dry up.


Bouey imagines what life was like when the sea was here while Karie tries to figure out how to use binoculars

The cause of the “Aral Sea Disaster,” as many refer to it, is the diversion of water from the sea to irrigate and sustain cotton cultivation in an extremely inhospitable and arid environment during the Soviet Era. Although the level of cotton production has declined and become more efficient, the diversion of water for irrigation continues. The canals diverting water from the sea lead off in every direction and reach as far away as Turkmenistan. However, poor maintenance and resource planning means that very little water actually makes it to it’s intended destination. Some people say that up to three times as much water is being drained from the Aral Sea as is replenished by natural sources.


The sign on the outskirts of town is evidence of what life used to be like in Moynaq

It is hard to imagine the magnitude of the effects the desertification of the Aral Sea are having in the region unless you see them firsthand. In fact, the effects are being felt as far away as Kyrgyzstan, where high concentrations of salt, sand and chemicals lifted from the dry seabed have been carried thousands of kilometers by winds. In the immediate area, the rainy season has shrunk from an average of 150 days of rain per year to a stunning 35… most likely due to the atmospheric effects of the shrinking sea.


To our surprise, life limps on in Moynaq

Thanks to the freedom of our Toyotas, we were able to visit the once thriving fishing town of Moynaq in the remote and isolated Karakalpakistan province of Uzbekistan. The shoreline of the Aral Sea now lies nearly 150 kilometers to the north of Moynaq. There are many towns like Moynaq, but here, the rusting, skeletal remains of a once proud fishing fleet that lay scattered across the sand dunes are a striking image of the ecological and economic impact that have been left in the wake of the receding waters.


Remnants of the fishing fleet litter the landscape


Moynaq used to have a population of over 2,000. By our estimates, the present population could not be more than 500. At least that is what it felt like. Moynaq was a total ghost town and everyone was left puzzled as to why any of the remaining residents would chose to stay out here literally in the middle of nowhere. After our arrival, we immediately spotted a few small boats rusting in the desert, but it was only after a few local children pointed us in the right direction that we found what we were looking for.



Small pools are all that remain of the Aral Sea in Moynaq

I have seen pictures of these boats before, but only after you see them with your own eyes, laying in the Martian-like  landscape that has become their grave, do you really start to understand what has happened in Moynaq and the surrounding area. I did a lot of thinking here. Why did they leave the boats here? Why didn’t they move them with the water? Why do they continue to drain water from the sea? Are there any other alternatives? Does anybody care at all?

Seeing what was left of the Aral Sea at Moynaq is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Hopefully, the governments in the region can come to an agreement on a solution, and hopefully experts and scientists are able to identify one that can restore part of the Aral Sea or at least stop its current evaporation. Unfortunately, by the time that happens, I fear it will be far too late and the entire region will be left to deal with the effects. Governments have been arguing over and scientists have been studying the Aral Sea for years. According to locals, if every scientist who visited the Aral Sea simply brought a bucket of water with them, the problem would already be solved.