A partner post from Vlast, translated by Eurasianet
The Ural River’s lower water levels can no longer be concealed or ignored. Europe’s third-longest river has grown shallower over the past decade, and the process intensified in the last three years. In order to understand how this affects peoples’ lives, journalists Lukpan Akhmedyarov and Raul Uporov met with those who live by the river and depend on it.
In West Kazakhstan Province, there are three bridges across the Ural and about four ferries. Ferries only sound like something outdated; in reality, in this province alone, they carry up to half a million people across the river annually. The ferries enable locals to visit family members and friends, organize weddings, go grocery shopping, obtain some necessary paperwork, and conduct simple rural commerce. Sometimes ferries even get funeral processions from one riverbank to the other.
To see how these ferries work, we set out for a 500-kilometer journey. The first leg of the trip is along the European side, to the village of Baturino in the Akzhaik District. There is a decent road from the outskirts of the village to the river. It is a dirt road, but it is so thoroughly trodden by so many wheels that it feels the same as the paved road we took from Uralsk to Baturino. We drive along river floodplains towards a forest; the river is behind that forest. On the way, we stop a couple of cars that drive by, asking for directions to the nearest ferry.
“Take the most tamped road, you won’t miss it,” says the driver of an old Lada 2110.
There are two more people in his car, which is also filled to the brim with blankets. There is also a chest sitting on top of the car.
“My daughter married a young man in Taypak (a village in West Kazakhstan Province), so the grannies made some blankets and korpes (traditional quilted mattresses) for her new home,” he explains.
According to him, a decade or so ago, one could get lost in this area: Between the forest and the village, there was high grass and a few lakes.
“Only fishermen, and the locals picking berries, would come here. And now everything is drying up. The lakes dried up; the grass is not what it used to be. So you can travel safely: Nothing blocks the view,” says the driver.
The landscape around fits the driver’s description: sparse groves, frail trees with leafless limbs, a few trunks of fallen trees scattered around. Ever since villages in the area were switched to natural gas, no one comes here for firewood. On our way to the river, we drive by three or four dried up floodplain lakes. Groups of willows and dried reeds indicate that there used to be water here.
The river current
Finally, we reach the forest, and a few meters later, we get to the river. On the bank, we see two wooden inclines, an old metal bed and a pipe firmly stomped into the ground. From that pipe, a metal wire runs to the other bank. On our bank, the slope is gentle; on the other, there is a bluff. The ferry – made of two metal tanks cut in half with a few planks on top serving as the deck – is on the other bank. A man comes out of a nearby booth.
“Are you here for the ferry?” he asks.
“Hold on.” The man turns toward his booth and apparently talks to someone inside.
Soon another man comes out of the booth. The two come down to the water and start pulling the ferry to our bank along the metal wire.
It takes the ferry a few minutes to reach our side. When the men notice that we take photos, they get wary, and ask who we are and why we need to take pictures. We explain that we are journalists working on a project about the Ural and the people who live along its banks.
“You are too late with your project,” says one of them. “There is barely any river left. If the shallowing continues at the current pace, in a year or two no one will even need the ferry.”
The other pushes the wooden inclines towards the ferry and gestures me to drive the car onto the ferry. Now it is my turn to get wary and ask questions. Won’t the wooden inclines break under the weight of the car? Won’t the ferry flip over in the middle of the river? And how do we even drive onto this thing?
“Don’t you worry. We can ferry two cars at once. There have been no complaints so far,” laughs one of them, named Kuandyk.
We warily drive onto the ferry. The ferrymen gesture that we need to drive to the very edge.
“Apply the parking brake and stop the engine,” they tell us while placing wooden chocks under the wheels.
Then the men take some clever appliance made of iron rods, cling with it to the metal wire and start pulling. Although the ferry looks clunky, it sets off easily, and glides smoothly towards the opposite bank.
Kuandyk and Baurzhan are employees at the ferry. The owner is a local resident, who officially registered this business and pays taxes.
“There are such ferries up the river in Mergen and Esensay, and down the river in Almaly,” says Baurzhan. “They are all makeshift like this one, and they all appeared 10-15 years ago, when the Ural started shallowing. Before that, such ferries would not be possible, because every spring the river would rise and flood the forest and the floodplains. But in the last 15 years or so, that didn’t happen. Those under 20 years of age never saw the times when the river flooded the forest and the meadows. When one tells them, they don’t believe it.”
All the ferries charge fees. According to our ferrymen, charges vary. Ours is the cheapest: 700 tenge [less than $2] per car for a one-way trip.
“Our work used to be harder. There was more water, and the current was stronger. In the spring, in high water, it would take us 10-15 minutes to get across the river. Now we manage within five-six minutes,” they say.
According to our interlocutors, the ferry works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a lunch break between 1 and 2 p.m.
“We ferry 10-15 cars a day. On weekends, when there is a kudalyk (traditional wedding brokerage), a wedding or a funeral, the number can go up to 30 cars. On weekdays, the peak hours are in the morning, when people drive from the village to the district capital, and in the evening, when they return home.”
I ask them how much the Ural’s reduction affects their lives.
“What can we say? We don’t feel it much. The one concern is that in the next few years the river can become so shallow that fords will appear, and then no one will need the ferry.”
“And how significantly has the river shallowed?” I ask.
“Can you see those logs sticking out on the cliff on the other side of the river?” Kuandyk asks, pointing to rotting logs poking some 2 to 2.5 meters above the waterline. “In 2010, this is where the pier was. We have to sink the pier lower and lower each year.”
“And do you fish here?”
“Address this question to him,” laughs Baurzhan, pointing towards Kuandyk.
“I do go fishing sometimes. But to be honest, the fish aren’t what they used to be,” says Kuandyk. “In the 1990s, it was common to catch a pike perch weighing three or four kilos. In the past three years, I haven’t caught a single pike perch at all. They are all gone. I occasionally get an asp, but it’s rare, and the fish is small, too – maybe half a kilo, or a kilo at most. I used to let such small fish go.”
We moor to the bank and the ferrymen help us get our car off the ferry. Another car arrives on the other side of the river, and the men rush off to ferry it, too.
The names of settlements along the river reflect its history. If you look at the map, on the left bank you will find such [Russian] names as Lbishensk, Kolovertnoye, Skvorkino, and Yanaykino. On the opposite side, you will see [Kazakh names] Esensay, Kyzylzhar, Karasu, and Akzhaiyk.
This separation happened over 300 years ago, when the Russian Empire started settling Cossacks along the left bank. The nomads of the steppe were given the right bank. Up to the 1980s, this history was apparent in the ethnic makeup of the villages: the left bank was mostly inhabited by Russians and Cossacks, and the right by Kazakhs.
However, during the last few decades of the 20th century, Russian speakers started leaving Kazakhstan for Russia; as a result, the old Cossack settlements are now inhabited predominantly by Kazakhs.
Today, if you visit, say, the above-mentioned Lbishensk, or the village of Kalyonoye, you are unlikely to meet any Russians or Cossack descendants. Just about the only reminders of their presence are the Russian Orthodox cemeteries with crosses. And in the village of Mergenevo, there are the ruins of a centuries-old church.
That was one of the reasons the ferries appeared in the first place. The local Kazakhs that now live on both sides of the river maintain their traditional expansive familial, clan and social ties, visiting each other. Doing so requires crossing the river.
From the ferry, we go up the river to Esensay, 30 kilometers from the place where we first crossed. Esensay is an old village established 200 years ago. Nearby there is a clan cemetery; only people from the Kynyk clan are buried there.
To get to the village, one needs to turn from the “highway” (as this gravel road is known here) and take a farm road. At the turn, there is an official road sign with the name of the village, and a hand-made sign saying “Ferry.” The road from Esensay to the ferry also runs through a forest. But the forest around Esensay is striking in its beauty: huge, century-old trees, small lakes, and no garbage of any sort, like the ubiquitous plastic bottles and bags. Finding the ferry was easy: the single dirt road through the floodplain forest ran right to it.
This ferry is also manned by two guys, Azamat and Nurbol. I ask them why ferries are so popular in this section of the river.
“In order to get to the city, you need to either take the unpaved gravel road, or take the ferry, which will take you straight to the Uralsk-Atyrau highway. In order to get to the district capital, Chapayevo, you need to drive 200 kilometers on the gravel road to Uralsk, and then another 120 kilometers to Chapayevo. Whereas if you take the ferry, you will get to Chapayevo within 30 minutes,” Azamat explains.
The ferry is almost identical to the previous one: two metal tanks welded together, with a plank deck on top. It is also manpowered in the same way: Two guys just pull it from one bank to the other.
Azamat laments the river’s shallowing.
“I’m afraid that soon we’ll be able to cross the river on foot. No one will need the damn ferry then,” he says.
Azamat points to a sand island covered with young reeds.
“This island appeared last year,” he says. “Now it’s covered in reeds. It’s grown since last year, too. Firstly, the river is shallowing. Secondly, the current keeps brining sand. If the island keeps growing at this pace, I’m afraid we’ll have to move our ferry.”
The ferry takes us to the bank near the village of Mergenevo, about 80 kilometers from Chapayevo. In the 1920s, this settlement was a stronghold of the local Cossack resistance to the Soviet rule. According to official history accounts, famous Red Army commander Vasily Chapayev drowned in the Ural up the river not far from here. But the local Cossacks maintain that their ancestors killed Chapayev with sabers near this village. One of those who left the village in the 1980s is Gennady Yelov, who is now 85. He did not move far though: He now lives with his wife Valentina in the village of Tonkeris, 200 kilometers up the river in West Kazakhstan Province.
Although Yelov moved, a key aspect for him did not change: He still lives by the Ural River. He maintains the same relationship with the river as many generations of his ancestors: He fishes, as well as gathers mushrooms and firewood in the riverside forest. When we arrive in Tonkeris, we are greeted by his granddaughter, who informs us that that he is out mushrooming.
The Yelovs’ house clearly reflects the river’s vicinity: One can see canned mushrooms on the table, and cured fish hanging from the ceiling. Among the owners of local beer pubs, Gennady is famous for his cured fish. His product is unparalleled in taste and texture, so pub owners from as far as Uralsk and Aksay visit him to buy it.
“It’s always like that: We women prepare, dry and cure the fish, and men get all the glory,” says Gennady’s wife Valentina, sorting through fresh fish, including a few pikes and common breams. “It’s not him who cures the fish. Do you really think he’s the one who does it? He just brings and dumps the fish here, and then I do the hard work. There’s no deliverance from his slog. I can’t wait for the winter, when the river freezes; it’ll provide some respite for me.”
When she learns why we are here, she offers some words of caution.
“Oh, young lads, he’s unlikely to help you,” she says. “He’s ill-tempered – a Cossack, you know. A stubborn man. He has his favorite fishing spot in the forest. The locals even call it Yelov’s Corner. He doesn’t take anyone there. All sorts of people would come from the city and beg him, even offered money. He always says no.”
A little later Gennady returns, riding his noisy motorcycle. Having barely heard out our request, he denies it outright.
“You don’t belong there! I won’t take you there,” he says.
We keep trying, but the old man does not relent. Then his granddaughter comes to our rescue.
“Grandpa, I want to go to the forest, too. Can I come with you?”
The girl appears to enjoy unlimited power over her grandfather. Having good-naturedly grunted something like “you always get in the way,” he agrees to take us there.
Yelov’s Corner turns out to be an actual corner created by the river’s bend.
“Why I don’t like bringing people here, you ask? Because when people show up, things get worse: trash, bonfires, bottles scattered everywhere. I don’t drink and don’t like those who do,” Gennady explains.
He shows us the forest at the opposite bank.
“A couple of white-tailed eagles used to nest there. They’re fish eaters, and if they nest by the river, it means there’s fish. And my eagles haven’t nested here in three years now. Because there’s no fish anymore. You can’t imagine the kind of fish I used to catch here! And now all I get is low-value fish, like rudd and other petty fish. For years, I’d let such fish go. And now I keep them,” he says.
But what worries him even more is the condition of the forest. He walks us from one dry hollow to another.
“They used to be flooded, there was water here,” he explains. “In the spring, carp would settle here, and at the end of the summer, we would harvest the carp. Having gorged here all summer, the fish would be fat like piglets. Now it all seems like a fairy tale: If you tell anyone, they wouldn’t believe it.”
Then he leads us to a meadow. We stop in the middle, and he asks us to look around.
“Look, you see how many tree canopies are dry? There isn’t a single healthy tree here. They’re all drying up. There’s no water. In the past, I wouldn’t take any water with me when I went fishing or to the forest. I could dig and easily find spring water. Now there’s no water. In the village, we once decided to dig some wells. We brought the machinery and experts. They dug 80-meters and still couldn’t find water. That’s why the forest is drying up. I’m afraid the kids won’t see even what we have today,” he says nodding toward his granddaughter Darya.
Gennady believes it is a manmade problem. Because of the dams, channels, and uncontrolled logging in the late 1990s, the Ural may lose all its floodplain forests. According to him, when he was young, in the spring, the river would swell so wide that one could not see the other bank.
The story first was published in Russian by Vlast.kz. It is part of a project, Developing Journalism: Exploring Climate Change, involving media organizations in Central Asia including the Media Development Center in Kyrgyzstan, the editorial staff of Anhor.uz in Uzbekistan, Asia-Plus in Tajikistan, and the online magazine Vlast in Kazakhstan. The project is administered by Germany-based n-ost and Kazakhstan-based MediaNet International Centre for Journalism with support from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.