Thanks to one of the worst manmade environmental disasters in recorded history, the Aral Sea is disappearing. But a small section of the sea in the north is reviving – and fish are returning.
When Soviet central planners decided to tap into Central Asia’s two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to provide water needed to grow cotton in arid Uzbekistan, they signed a death warrant for the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, at one time the Aral supplied one-sixth of the fish consumed in the Soviet Union. But over the past 50 years, the inland sea has shrunk to less than a tenth of its original size.
With help from the World Bank, Kazakhstan in 2005 built a dam to trap some water in what had been a bay in the north. Critics say the experiment will hasten the demise of the rest of the sea; supporters argue it is the best that can be done at this stage.
It seems to be working.
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Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus and Central Asia.