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KAZAKHSTAN: Sea Reclaimed as Lake

Christopher Pala

AKBASTE, Nov 2 2011 (IPS) - Just six years after the completion of a dike that raised the level of the northern part of the Aral Sea by two metres and slashed its salt content by two-thirds, this remote Central Asian lake once synonymous with ecological catastrophe has become a model of environmental recovery.

The Aral Sea yields fish again. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS.

The Aral Sea yields fish again. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS.

“It’s amazing how fast it’s bounced back,” Aral Sea expert Philip Micklin of the University of Western Michigan at Kalamazoo told IPS as he measured salinity against a backdrop of reed-covered wetlands alive with sandpipers, ducks, swans and even flamingos just south of this fishing village.

“It’s already less salty than I expected,” he adds, also pointing out how clear the water is, during a two- week expedition around the sea.

Starting in the 1960s, the Soviet government decided to divert most of the water from two rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea to irrigate vastly expanded cotton fields. “They consciously chose cotton over fish,” says Micklin, noting that the cotton was used mostly for uniforms and gunpowder.

Uzbekistan, which inherited the southern part of the sea and the Amu Darya, the biggest of the two rivers that carried water from glaciers in Pamir range to the sea and kept it fresh, became independent in 1991. But it too chose to prioritise cotton for export, the regime’s main source of foreign exchange.

As a result, the sea shrank to 10 percent of its surface, and the seabed blended into the surrounding desert (Aral means island in Kazakh). For the first few years, dust storms sent clouds of salt laced with pesticides around the region, already one of the poorest in the Soviet Union, creating a spike in respiratory diseases, local doctors say.

The remaining water split into three lakes, the salt content soared and the fish retreated into the deltas of the two rivers.

In Kazakhstan’s least salty, northern part, a salt-water tolerant flounder was introduced, providing a minimum of protein for the local villages. In Uzbekistan’s southwestern lake, the water is four times saltier than the oceanic level and only brine shrimp thrive. The southeastern one, much shallower, sometimes disappears entirely.

As the sea withdrew to 100 kilometres south of Aralsk, the once-thriving seaport with a major cannery and a now closed airport became as desolate as the 200-odd ships that were stranded around the Aral as it dried up.

For decades, these ships provided nests for falcons and shade for the domestic cows, horses and camels that roam a dun-colored, clay desert that supports only low bushes. Now, with demand booming for scrap metal in neighbouring China, most of these ships’ hulls have been cut up and hauled away, leaving the rusty bridges looking even odder as they tower over the desert.

By 2005, Kazakhstan, which owns the river that flows into the northern part of the sea, the Syr Darya, was flush with oil revenues. With advice and a loan from the World Bank, it built a 13 km dike that prevented water from the Syr Darya from flowing south and evaporating. The dike expanded the sea area by 18 percent and made it again livable for the freshwater fishes.

The result has been a spectacular success. More than two dozen species have fanned out from the delta and reproduced at a breathtaking speed as reeds spread in the shallow parts, providing spawning grounds for them and attracting millions of birds.

Even as 5,000 tons a year are taken out by fishers, the estimated combined weight of the Small Aral’s fishes shot up from 3,500 metric tons to 18,000 tons in just six years. “It’s still growing,” says regional fisheries director Zaualkhan Yermakhanov with a satisfied smile as he supervises a scientific catch with gillnets. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it reached 40,000 tons in another five years.”

Economic benefits are already being felt. In Aralsk, a plant fillets, packs and freezes pike perch, a walleye cousin, and other fish for export to distant cities, employing 41 people. The plant’s director says he expects to get approval to export pike perch to the European Union, where it retails for more than salmon. Another plant is under construction near Aralsk.

A few miles from the village of Akbaste, a dozen small fishing boats head out at dusk to lay their long nets. At dawn, the fishers go back out to haul them in, quivering with a cornucopia of flapping fish – all of them edible and sellable. “Fishermen can make up to 2,000 dollars a month,” says Yermakhanov, a huge sum in a region where building a spacious clay house from scratch costs 15,000 dollars.

“The dike has changed our lives,” says veteran fisherman Nargali Demeiuov, 79. “People are coming back to our village.” His son, a fisherman, owns a Nissan Patrol. His grandson, a schoolteacher for 16 years, says children are better fed now and are more attentive in class.

“The lesson,” says Micklin, the scientist, “is that if you leave even a small part of an ecosystem intact, it acts as a refuge for the species, so that when you rehabilitate the rest, it can fully recover.”

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