September 30, 2011

The Aral Sea begins to trickle back

Story and photos by Nadia Shira Cohen and Paulo Siqueira (watch video)

Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor

Zhalanash, Kazakhstan In the 1960s, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers were diverted by the Soviets to irrigate cotton plantations. Deprived of its major tributaries, the Aral Sea began to recede – taking with it the fishing industry and much of the sustainable agriculture. Miles of desert appeared where expanses of fresh water had lapped. What remained of the inland lake became hypersalinated and contaminated with agricultural pesticides. Fish died. Wildlife died. Even the weather grew more harsh – drier summers, colder winters. Unemployment and illness rose among residents. Many left. It was an environmental disaster. In 2005, after years of failed attempts by locals, the World Bank and the Kazakh government completed the eight-mile-long Kok- Aral Dam, an $86 million project designed to raise the water level of the North Aral Sea by containing the flow into the vastly diminished southern part. Fish were reintroduced; a Danish charity donated fishing nets to villagers. Catch levels are still low, with an annual yield of 10,000 metric tons projected for 2012. But the newly returned fishermen of Tactubek are a testament to the human desire to try to correct the wrongs of the past.


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