Alberto Prieto

Sea Shepherds - the uncertain future of the Aral Sea

It is difficult to explain the feelings that are triggered when looking at a fishing harbor which, as if by magic, contains no water.

Once located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in a region with an extremely dry climate, was the fourth largest body of fresh water on the planet, the Aral Sea. It was fed from the North by the Syr Darya River and from the South by the Amu Darya River. The problems began in the 1960s when Soviet-style agricultural methods to increase cotton production were employed. Vast networks of irrigation canals were built in the Central Asian desert, taking a third of the water of the Amu Darya and distributing it to irrigate the extensive cotton crops.

Over the years more and more water was diverted from the two rivers that feed the Aral until their contribution to the sea was reduced to a minimum. The result is that today the Aral Sea has lost 75% of its size and has split in two. At the current rate of decline, the Aral Sea could be completely gone by 2020.

The climate has been affected: summers are much hotter and drier and winters colder, and the health consequences have been equally negative. The populations of Quizilorda (Kazakhstan), of Dashhowuz (Turkmenistan) and of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan receive water contaminated with fertilizers and chemicals, unsuitable for human consumption. The region’s drinking water contains a quantity of salt per liter four times the limit recommended by WHO (World Health Organization). Tuberculosis has reached epidemic proportions and the infant mortality rate in some areas has reached 100 deaths per 1000 live births. About 70% of the residents of Karakalpak suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, typhoid, hepatitis and esophageal cancer.

The Soviet Union refused to recognize the existence of this major environmental disaster until the mid 1980s. The Aral is now a sea of tears for those who survive in the areas near the watershed. A poor quality and scarcity of drinking water is compounded by several health problems derived from the drought and the use of pesticides and chemicals with numerous consequences: the health of women of childbearing age is constantly degraded and the number of miscarriages has dramatically increased as well as the number of stillborn or deformed children.

A new generation of people has born with the Aral disaster: the shepherds of the sea. They can been seen at daybreak looming on the horizon, taking their camels to graze in the same place where fish should never have disappeared from, who knows if forever, while remembering the corner of the house where they keep their fishing poles just in case some day…

Alberto Prieto

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