(Published in The Moscow Times, Svenska Dagbladet, Nationen and Hufvudstadsbladet)
The disappearance of the Aral Sea has been called one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20thcentury. The pursuit of ever-increasing quantities of cotton crops led to the near eradication of what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake. But now, five decades after the waters began to retreat, something is happening at the north end. Water, fish and life is returning.

In Aralsk, a poor provincial city on the former banks of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, everyone knows of Murat Sydykov. He is the great poet and musician of the region. His instrument is the dombra, a two-string lute, and almost all of his songs engage, in one way or another, with the Aral Sea. A man forever connected to the Aral Sea. So connected that even his face bears mark of the sea. His mouth is disfigured as a result of an accident when he was a kid and fell aboard from a boat out on the Aral Sea.
Seated at the family dining table in his Aralsk home, enjoying liver stew prepared by his wife, Bazar, he attempts to explain the bond that exists between him and the lake.
“When I started out as a musician I wrote happy songs, about the love for fisher girls and about the Aral Sea being my mother,” he says. “But then the lake began to retreat, the fishing boats returned without fish. I was stricken by great grief and after that I started to write a different kind of music. Sorrowful music.”

Murat Sydykov is the most well-known musician in Aralsk. He plays the dombra, a two-string lute.

For thousands of years the Aral Sea has continuously changed shape, expanding and retreating. During the 20th century, however, the waters receded farther than ever before.

To a large extent, this disastrous environmental event was the product of Soviet-era cotton farming. During Lenin’s reign, the Soviet Union declared their intention to become self-sufficient in cotton production. Stalin went even further, proclaiming that the Soviet Union would be the world’s leading producer of the crop.
The land best fitted for this purpose was located in Central Asia, but vast quantities of water were required to irrigate the arid plains. In the 1950s, a massive system of canals was established to divert the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, in order to supply the new cotton fields. The dramatic diminution in the lake’s volume could not have escaped the Soviet government’s notice, yet production continued to grow.

In 1960, the area of the Aral Sea was 68 000 square kilometres. In the decades since, the surface area has shrunk while the salinity has increased. The fish have disappeared, the fishing industry collapsed, the climate altered, standards of public health deteriorated, and poverty has spread out over the enormous desert that was once the lake floor. Today, only 10 percent of the original lake remains, mainly divided into one lake in the north, and two in the south.

Ainakul Uderbayevna.

“When the lake began to shrink many people moved and the economy deteriorated radically,” says Ainakul Uderbayevna, president of Aral Tenizi, a local help organisation that supports fishermen.

While the situation of the lake remains critical, she says that things are looking brighter along the northern shore. People are moving back to Aralsk. This new influx is the result of a dam built in 2005, assisted by a substantial loan from the World Bank. The northern section of the lake is located in Kazakhstan, while the majority of the southern parts lie in Uzbekistan. The dam separates the northern part of the lake from the two sections in the south. On the Uzbekistani side, the government continues to prioritise its lucrative cotton industry, and the extraction of gas and oil reserves hidden under the land that was formerly a part of the lake bed. Kazakhstan, by contrast, has made an effort to replenish the North Aral Sea, feeding it with water from the Syr Darya.
As a result of the dam, the water level in the North Aral Sea has risen from 30 to 42 metres in just a few years, effectively reducing the great clouds of sand, salt and chemicals from the old lake bed that sweep over Aralsk. Most importantly, with more water in the lake and a drop in salinity, the fish have returned, reviving the region’s fishing industry.

“There are plans for more dams to be built and for improvements of the flow of the Syr Darya, and after that the lake can rise to 47 metres,” says Ainakul Uderbayevna.

To reach the Aral Sea coast from the old harbour city of Aralsk, the fisherman Aidar Zhusupov passes through an enormous desert, formerly the lake bed, in his robust Russian VAZ jeep.

In the 1990s, only around 100 fishermen remained in the region surrounding Aralsk. Today, there are close to 700. Aidar Zhusupov is one of them. Squatting by his jeep, he chain-smokes and watches the sun go down over the lake, while his colleagues head out to empty the nets.

“I began to fish in 1976. Then the shore was very close to my home village, Bogen. But for every day that passed it moved further and further away. At first we were not that worried, the lake has shrunk before throughout history and it has always returned. But finally we understood that this was something else.”

By 1978, Zhusupov had to buy a motorcycle in order to reach the lake’s edge. The catches grew smaller and smaller. But to abandon his profession, as many were forced to, was not an option for him.
“No, never. This is my life and what I know.”

Yerlan Abiev and Asylhan Zhusupov carry the catch of the day ashore.

After a couple of hours, the fishing boats return. Despite the fact that it’s low season, they bring back several hundred kilos of fish. Prior to 2005, the volume of fish caught in the North Aral Sea was minimal. Thanks to the dam, fishermen are now able to bring in thousands of tons per year. While this is a far cry from the generous catches of the pre-Soviet era, the increase has changed the lives of many inhabitants of the old fishing villages.
“Recently we bought a new fishing boat and we have been able to build a new house,” says Aidar’s brother, Galymzhan Zhusupov.

Asylhan Zhusupov pulls the nets out of the Aral Sea. Even though it is low season, the catch yields several hundreds of kilos.

When the water levels began to rise, the Kazakh government started leasing parts of the lake to local fishing entrepreneurs. They, in turn, issue licenses to fishermen, who sell their catch back to the entrepreneur. Myltyqbai Smailov is one of these entrepreneurs. A map of the sea stands above the entrance to his cold storage facility in the village of Bogen. He proudly points out the three parts of the lake that he leases.

Myltyqbai Smailov.

“I moved fastin 2006 and got two areas, then I got another one in 2012,” he says.
He issues licenses for some 50 boats and, most of the time, his cold stores are well-stocked. The fish is sold to several former-Soviet states.
“Life is fun, it is fun to work. The economy of the region grows every year, new houses are built. If only the authorities make sure to further raise the water levels, we will have a bright future.”

Things have also changed for Murat Sydykov, the Aralsk musician whose life is so intimately intertwined with the destiny of the lake. He has begun to write cheerful songs again. While the harbour of his hometown is still dried-up, its port eaten away by rust, the water crawls steadily closer and is now only 25 kilometres away. The authorities hope that, in a few years, it will reach the harbour again. At which time, Murat will be waiting, ready to embrace his returning mother.
“I am writing music to welcome the lake back to Aralsk. The day the water returns I will arrange a big orchestra concert in the harbour and perform the new music. It will be a symphony forthe water’s return.”

Rusty cranes and some old hulls are all that remains of the once prosperous port in Aralsk. Before 2005 the water was 100 kilometres from the harbour, but after a dam was built the coastline has crawled closer. Today, it is only 25 kilometres from the harbour to the water.