Since 2004 I have been documenting the slow death of the Aral Sea, “clearly one of the worst environmental disasters of the world,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For decades now the Aral Sea — technically a lake, bordered by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and once, at 26,000 square miles, the fourth largest on the planet — has been slowly dying; geologists estimate that it is now one-tenth its former size.
The immediate, physical causes of this ongoing ecological tragedy are clear. Starting in the 1960s, the Soviet Union engineered the large-scale diversion of the two major rivers that fed the sea. Since then the Syr Darya, in the north, and the Amu Darya, in the south, each of which carried water across the Central Asian steppes from as far away as the mountain ranges of Tien-Shan and the Pamirs, have flowed not into the Aral but instead into a canal system that irrigates vast fields of cotton. The cotton generated so much cash that the Soviet government called it “white gold.”
With its water sources dramatically reduced — from 28,000,000 cubic feet per second to 5,500 cubic feet — the Aral Sea began to shrink. The environmental and economic devastation that followed has been well documented. The lakebed is now a vast salt flat permeated with pesticides from the runoff of surrounding agricultural fields. Local people are suffering significantly greater incidence of chronic disease, and a few years ago it was reported that in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan (on the south of the Aral Sea), the toxicity of the environment was such that the breast milk of mothers was contaminated, resulting in one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Fish species have died off, and a once prosperous fishing industry, which employed thousands on large ships and in processing plants and canneries and at railyards that stocked Moscow-bound trains, has collapsed. Many of the old ships still litter the dry harbors.
The deeper causes of the crisis lie in what some observers have called “human folly and hubris.” Technological ingenuity enabled the manipulation of nature on a vast scale; political heedlessness has allowed that manipulation to continue even as ecological destruction followed on an equally vast scale. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the responsibility for the Aral Sea was transferred to the independent republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) that together with Afghanistan share the Aral Sea watershed. But addressing complex environmental problems inherited from the old regime has not been high on the agenda of the new rulers. Extensive cotton farming continues, and remains a major source of revenue.
Growing up in Czechoslavakia during the communist era, I first learned about the Aral Sea during a geography class. Our teacher told us about how the waters of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya were being used to irrigate the fields and provide opportunities for farmers — and to put food on people’s tables. This was, we were told, one of the great achievements: Central Asia had become a breadbasket for the USSR. Years later, I began to ponder the impact and legacy of communism on the environment; so I decided to investigate the fate of the Aral Sea. I was not on assignment; pure curiosity propelled me to Central Asia. Ultimately, for this photography project, I made four trips to the region, each lasting several weeks. I traveled from the former shores of the Aral Sea to the mountains 1,000 miles to the east, and in this way I was able to observe and photograph the long journey of the waters to the Aral basin.
My entry point to Central Asia was always Almaty. One of the transportation hubs of Kazakhstan, the city is almost on the opposite side of the world from San Francisco, where I live now. To get there you take a series of flights that usually last more than 20 hours. From Almaty you ride for 36 hours by train to Aralsk, once the gateway to the Aral Sea; although the town is no longer coastal, the old cranes and loading docks remind us of the bygone era. Perhaps the most celebrated moment in the town’s history happened during the 1920s, when Russia was suffering from a great famine. Back then the Aral Sea fishermen would send their bountiful catch to feed the starving young nation. It was only 30 years later that the Soviet government would send its engineers to undertake the massive project of draining the sea that had nurtured the fish.
The first time I traveled to visit the vanishing sea I did not know anyone there. Frankly, I was nervous; I had no idea where I was going or what I would find. Aralsk has a single hotel, which became my base for a couple of weeks in the winter of 2004. The hotel was only a block from the harbor, and I could see the gate to the town’s beach from my window. The landscape around me still bore the imprint of the former sea; the traces of shorelines showed where the water once reached. Walking on the desert that is the former sea bed, you hear a constant crackle under your feet, and are startled to find that you are stepping on piles and piles of seashells. On my daily excursions I often thought about the future of the people who remain here, particularly about the children, who pass daily by the rusting hulls of ships, but have never seen the sea.
Over time, I made friends and found local resources. I hired a driver who knew the area well and had many connections to the outlying communities. Almatbek became a good friend and I came to rely on his local knowledge. We took trips to the villages and hamlets on the sea’s former shores. The roads here have no services (most of them do not qualify as roads anyway); we carried food and water, and also fuel and spare parts for Almatbek’s Niva (a Russian-made military jeep). During these trips we would depend on the hospitality of the people. We’d arrange lodgings by knocking on a stranger’s door and asking to spend the night. To my amazement the door was always opened and we would be invited in. I learned that we were benefiting from the legendary hospitality of Central Asia.