***Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!***
Update August 2009*** Newest Photo of Aral Sea by NASA – The sea has become virtually a desert.
Yes. The Aral Sea. The name either stirs up complex emotions of urgency, desperation, hopelessness, and shame or – nothing at all. For too many people on this planet the latter response is all too common, the Aral Sea might as well be a massive depression on the moon or Mars because they could not locate it on a map of the world despite its huge size and complex issues surrounding it. The story of the Aral Sea is epic. It marks a beginning as well as an end on this planet, it is a watershed. It’s an indicator of the progress of civilization and it is a marker of human power. It is also infinitely buried behind stories of Hollywood drama, iEverything, and sports scandals. It is the story of the Aral Sea that future generations will look back upon and clearly understand where humans went wrong but are left empty with the reasons why. Parched, starving, and disease-ridden they will look back at their species impact on the planet and feel abysmal shame. But for now we live pridefully in ignorance, playing a game of economics, gratuitously feeding the infinite desires in our finite world, laughing or scoffing at those who do not win or play the game.
So what is the story of the Aral Sea? When I said it was epic, I wasn’t kidding. It’s a story that J. R. R. Tolkien could be impressed with, and it’s real too. It’s a story involving extreme landscapes, powerful leaders, deadly weapons the likes of which this Earth has never seen, projects never before attempted. It is about a struggle for humanity to become God. To the right we see the Aral Sea and its serene beauty from space. The reason why we can see it from space is because the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. That’s right – a lake. A lake that supported all forms of life – including humans – for centuries.
The difference between a lake and a sea is salinity, or salt – the more salinity the more likely the body of water will be called a sea. The Aral Sea lay around some of the flattest and driest land on the planet. An area naturally high in salt the Aral Sea seemed destined to become a salty sea. But over 1,500 miles away in the remote mountains of a forgotten country that is known today as Tajikistan – something was happening that greatly affected the Aral Sea. The Pamir Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the world and still covered in glaciers. Being one of the few unthawed regions left on the planet glacial waters poured in abundance from the mountains dropping to much lower land in the West. Fresh and clean, two of the largest rivers in Central Asia headed West and drained into the Aral Sea. This freshwater runoff allowed the Aral Sea to lose salinity and become the fourth largest lake in the world. Fish prospered, animals prospered, people prospered. Centuries went by and the Aral Sea continued to provide. Strong coastal communities formed where fishing and fresh water dominated the otherwise dry and empty plains. The story of the Aral Sea up to this point could be one akin to a fairy-tale, a massive source of water in one of the driest and hottest places on the planet, a much needed source of fresh water and food, like a mother she nurtured those who trusted her with their lives.
As the centuries passed nothing remarkable changed. The freshwater from the mountains were plentiful as was the diverse ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Even when the Great Russian Famine struck in the early 1920’s the Aral Sea helped provide for a growing nation. The Aral Sea could not have known what the people it had helped try to feed during the famine were going to do to it a couple decades later – nobody could’ve known.
The Karakum and the Nurek:
The Karakum desert is one of the largest deserts in the world and lies mostly Southeast of the Aral Sea. The hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet was 136 degrees Fahrenheit in Libya… the Karakum desert has been known to reach over 122 degrees. Translated the name does little to help the image of the Karakum, or Kara – kum, or “Black Sand.” The desert of black sand sounds like the kind of place where Satan himself seems like he’d reside, and he just might. Overshadowed by the boundless Sahara or the enchanted Gobi little is known or documented about this desert which resides in a country almost entirely sheltered from the outside world (Turkmenistan). Closed to the public the Karakum desert has a mystical allure to it which the Darvasa Gas Craters exacerbate (right).
In 1954 the United States and the Soviet Union were beginning their long descent in to the Cold War. While the United States was condemning the actions of Joseph McCarthy and his red scare, the Soviet Union was very interested in this desert Hell. They had grand schemes to transform a desert, that’s right – a desert, into prosperous agricultural land. The Soviets had visions of cotton and rice supplying their socialist empire from one of the most forsaken deserts on the planet.
How do you pull off making a desert a haven for life? It is a contradiction in terms to have an abundance of life with a desert. Deserts are meant to be void of life, empty of the necessities of survival for most species regardless of what kingdom they belong, yet this was the plan of the Soviets. A year earlier in 1953 one of the most notorious leaders in the recorded history of the planet had finally died due to a stroke – Joseph Stalin. There was then a struggle for power in the Soviet Empire in which Nikita Kruschev came out on top. It was in the infancy of his leadership that the plan to turn a desert in to an ecosystem began. And the plan was this: To build the largest irrigation canal that this Earth has ever seen. And in 1954 the Karakum Canal was being built. When finished it was going to be 500 miles of pure irrigation madness. There was just one little problem – where would they get all that water from in a desert? The answer lay in the foot of the impressive Pamir Mountains in which the longest river in Central Asia flowed out of – known as the Amu Darya.
The Amu Darya, such a large river the name actually translates into “sea” or “big river,” had enough water to provide the Karakum Canal with the water it needed for irrigation. It would take over 3 decades to complete the canal but it was completed, not only that but the Karakum Canal was a success! Canals started springing up all along the Amu Darya and her sister to the North, Syr Darya, mainly growing cotton and rice. It quickly became the staple in these Middle Earth countries. Even today the Karakum Canal still reigns as the largest irrigation canal in the world. The long flowing arms of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya became economic goldmines. The Syr Darya’s name means “Great Pearl” because of the fresh glacial sediment pouring off the mountains giving the color of wet cement. The sources of these rivers were useful to the Soviet agenda as well. Deep in the vast Pamirs the Soviets were brewing another plan to harness the powers of these glacial rivers.
Tucked in the Pamir Mountains, in the quiet country of Tajikistan, a town was created that never existed before. The town of Nurek was built out of necessity and still exists. Like a relic from a long forgotten past a statue of Lenin, the godfather of the Soviet Union, adorns the town even today. The town was created for one job – to build the tallest dam in the world and then staff it and run it. The Nurek Dam was born. The Nurek Dam provides electricity for 98% of the country in the past and currently. It is still an essential part of the Tajik lifestyle. Families take vacations to the Dam’s reservoir and swim in the pristine blue glacial waters. The government is so concerned about security with it that they allow almost no pictures of it – you are lucky to find 4 on the internet. The river the Nurek Dam sits on – the Vakhsh River – used to flow into the pearly Syr Darya but it is now used to power an entire country. The Soviet Union only saw success in their eyes: the longest canal, the tallest dam. Surely they questioned what it is they couldn’t do. Their legacy carries on today as a heavy portion of the world market of cotton comes from this area of the world because of the irrigation canals these two rivers fed, and the Nurek Dam is still the tallest fully functioning dam in the world.
The Death of the Amu and Syr Darya:
Now, while all this was happening the Aral Sea was creating a local mystery. The shoreline of the Aral Sea was receding. The waters edge was quickly becoming more distant. Interestingly enough it was originally branded as a temporary problem. The solution was simple – get some boats, bring them upstream, dredge the nearest canal and pull that water back to the Aral Sea so boats could still go about their business. The water the dredgers brought back were toxic with pesticides and high concentrations of salt. To the fish it was a chemical bath that most did not survive and the result was a plummeting fishing industry in a lake with a still receding shore. In the early 60s the Aral Sea employed 60,000 people in the fishing industry, by the 70’s the industry had dropped 75%. The Aral Sea was in a crisis and the reality of it soon sunk in. The irrigation canals and the dams all diverted the arteries of the Aral Sea across Central Asian desert. Naturally the answer would be to close down the irrigation canals and allow the water to continue to flow in the sea, but too late, these canals help aid a global need for cotton as well as employs thousands. Nobody was in a rush to shut all this down to feed a dying Sea – that, in the rest of the world’s eyes, was a local problem.
By 2000, less than a half century after the last time the Aral Sea was seen at normal levels, the Aral Sea is a wasteland. Piles of salt encrust the sand that used to be full of thriving life and all underwater. When the wind picks up it blows fine pieces of sand, salt, and chemicals across the now barren desert. If Rip Van Winkle himself went to sleep under a tree in front of the Aral Sea Coastline he would wake up aghast at the desert that surrounded him. He would hop on the parched landscape breathing in the sandy heat. Surely it would feel post-apocalyptic. At one point Rip Van Winkle could stop and look up and say “The water should be 30 feet over my head,” because it had been only 50 years earlier. Eventually Rip Van Winkle would find the shoreline – far off in the distance from the original. Once the 4th largest lake in the world it’s now between the 10th and 15th largest… and dropping rapidly. On top of creating the salty, sandy, pesticide-ridden desert the Soviets had one more thing to contribute to the area.
Picture a James Bond movie: James Bond: Renaissance Island. This mission for Bond isn’t easy, he has to infiltrate a forgotten Asian country and reach an island in the middle of a sea undetected. On this island lies one of the most top-secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities on the face of this planet. This is Renaissance Island – a name only a cliche Bond movie could’ve come up with. Once he passes through the test chambers and secretly strangles a few guards Bond finds himself in a clean, white laboratory with the most hazardous materials on the planet: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. “You’re too late Bond,” the Soviet supervillian appears from behind a secret door blocking his exit in his pressed and decorated uniform, “I’m just about to release these toxins into the world, and you’re too late to stop me.” Normally this is where Bond does something really creative, but in real life Bond never stood a chance. This time the supervillian wins.
Welcome to Vozrozhdeniya Island. Yes, the name really does mean Renaissance. The word renaissance means “rebirth,” so it is interesting that only death was on the mind of so many of the inhabitants. Indeed it is true Vozrozhdeniya Island was host to one of the most top secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities in the world. However, it didn’t always used to be like that. Vozrozhdeniya is the southwestern of the two islands in the Aral Sea. In the 1930’s it was briefly used as a bioweapons testing range but was not considered for some of mankind’s most dastardly work again until the 1950s. Enter Kantubek, the town created for the scientists to live and play in when not working in a top secret bioweapons facility.
Vozrozhdeniya Island is dubbed “the world’s largest biological warfare testing ground.” This facility really did carry those germs mentioned above: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. Out of Kantubek the men would come to work to create some of the world’s most powerful superstrains. This meant that they would take something like smallpox and make it super resistant to antibiotics making it more easily communicable. But how do we know for sure what was going on in that facility? While many scientists have worked there I have only found two that have spoken about their time there.
In 1992 a man named Ken Alibek defected from Russia to the United States. Alibek and Vozrozhdeniya Island had a special history together. You see, Alibek used to be the former head of the Soviet germ warfare program and just so happened to have worked on Vozrozhdeniya himself. He openly admits to the atrocious strains they worked on. He claims to have been ordered to prepare a strain of anthrax, small-pox, and bubonic plague to be put in a warhead aimed at the United States – New York, Boston, Chicago. Openly Alibek admits that in a certain scenario the devastation would be catastrophic. Animal testing was common on the Island; guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, cows, horses, donkeys and even monkeys were all animal victims of the facility. Like a funhouse from Hell the animals would be pulled through unknown corridors and led to dead ends where agonizing and terrible Death lay waiting to be fed Life sautéed in disease.
They tested at night, hidden from the secret eye of satellites, it was when the sun set that the animals must’ve backed in to a corner of their cage fearing their “turn.” Open air testing with biological weapons is universally agreed as a bad idea, yet on Vozrozhdeniya it was common practice. The Soviets, however, did attempt some level of containment. They figured insects or birds could be nearby during the open-air testing thusly transferring some superstrain to the mainland. To solve this little problem the Soviets poisoned the whole testing area to kill off anything around that happened to be alive. This is to ensure those insects are dead before any serious biological weapons are tested, some have taken issue with this practice claiming that it guarantees nothing, but the Soviets took no mind. After the open-air testing facility is freshly poisoned it is time to bring the animal(s) out to be subjected to some of the most wretched diseases on the planet. Alibek describes one night: “The cloud would start moving towards the monkeys. They were crying because they knew they would die.” Afterwards they’d be studied until they languishingly succumbed to death – Alibek claims thousands of animals died through this method.
The other man I found was named Gennadi Lepyoshkin who was a supervisor of scientific teams on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the 1970’s. He recalls the still fresh and deep Aral in which they swam during their off time. The island was “beautiful.” From Lepyoshkin we gather a more relaxed atmosphere even claiming one woman who dropped a petri dish of anthrax and tried to cover it up was not even punished for her action, “Nobody got sick” he says. Plus not all work Lepyoshkin worked on was negative: “We discovered new methods to improve the immune system. We developed an anthrax vaccine that was given to the whole army, and it’s considered to be the best in the world. Same with our plague vaccine; it’s been used more than 40 years.” Yet I wonder if he really believed the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Lepyoshkin on his feelings for testing biological weapons of horror:
I knew the weapons would never be used. When nuclear weapons were made, no one thought they would be used. You’d have to be mad to use them. But now that there’s terrorism, it’s more scary. You know biological weapons are cheap. We calculated that to achieve an effect on one square kilometer (and by ”effect,” he explains, he means killing about half of the population) it costs $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, $600 with a chemical weapon and $1 with a bioweapon. One dollar.
Unfortunately the story of Vozrozhdeniya Island gets worse. One dark night in 1988 a train was heading towards the Aral Sea carrying 100 tons of anthrax. There were orders straight from Moscow to bury the anthrax on Vozrozhdeniya and to never speak of it again. Covered in bleach they were shipped to the island in steel barrels. Officials decided instead of burying them in the barrels they would just dump them in pits and pour a little more bleach on it just to be sure. In 1991 the island was abandoned altogether becoming one of the most hazardous places on the planet.
The Aral Sea Disaster:
Man. The Aral Sea sure has its fair share of stories. And they come together in a putrid parade of human ignorance. The dreams that the irrigation canals and the dams were supposed to fulfill gave birth to nightmares that thrived the further down the rivers you traveled. The irrigation canals did do their job – they created plenty of arable land to make cotton. In fact today in Uzbekistan an ancient communist dictator is still in charge of the country which he uses as his own personal cotton-picking slave business. In this video they ask a child how long shes been picking cotton and she responds “for a long time.” This is what she is forced to do for “school.” When picked the workers (slaves) are forced to sell it to the government for below market price so the corrupt leadership can make a profit. The region using these canals sell a serious portion of global cotton to the world, so it makes one wonder what one could be inadvertently contributing to when they simply buy clothes. Cotton is known as “white gold” for a reason. And on top of that they load the cotton with pesticides poisoning the canals and the river water that did make it to the Aral Sea.
In fact it was the pesticides flowing into the Aral, the heavily increased salinity in the area, and the unique batch of poison and diseases of Renaissance Island that left the sea null of life by the 1980s. It took a matter of about two decades to eliminate all life from the Aral. The water has decreased at an unparalleled rate. Reports currently fear the Sea’s disappearance in under a decade – and any satellite picture shows it too. It was as if the Vozrozhdeniya bioweapons facility manufactured a disease that could cause terrible cancer – not to humans – but bodies of water. From space one would watch the Aral Sea slowly look more ill up until the present where the Aral looks sickeningly like a skeleton of her former self. She is not being fed and she has become emaciated.
What is the Aral Sea like today on the ground? Put simply – awful. It’s even worse than in 2000, the Aral Sea was everything to the locals, it even gave them milder summers and winters in a land that was already known for extremes. The Aral Sea is now a dry, salty, desert. When the wind picks up here the fine particles of sand, pesticides, and poison make a “chemical cocktail,” a term I’ve only heard used describing the air of the Aral Sea. And when this wind picks up, some of it doesn’t land until it’s as far as the Antarctic, or even further. Lime disease, all sorts of cancer, anemia and tuberculosis are all running rampant in the Aral Sea region. The infant mortality rate has risen in the area as well. Doctors without Borders, something that has previously been chiefly used in war-zones, have committed themselves to aiding the Aral Sea problem as their first environmental cause. Yes, it is that bad. Abandoned boats are strewn across this desert leaving the eerie feeling of death. Maybe it’s because the Aral Sea is literally now a desert, void of life – or maybe it’s because you are standing around ships in that desert – the only desert on Earth covered in ships.
If you pass the barren coastal towns, pass the abandoned desert ships, hike through the searing desert with snowpiles of salt as wind pummels your pores with fine toxic particles, you will come to the sea’s edge. It’s still there for the time being. The salinity is so high it is now compared to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on mainland Earth. Walk along the edge of the water pondering humanity for a while and come to the newly formed land-bridge that now connects you to the Renaissance Peninsula. In 2001, the 10 year anniversary of the Soviets abandoning one of the most toxic islands on the planet, Vozrozhdeniya, she shed her Island title in place for the fancier “Peninsula.” Vozrozhdeniya rejoined the mainland as waters decreased to its consistent record low. Rodents and other animals now have open access to one of the most lethal areas on the planet.
In 1995 a U.S. Department of Defense mission found its way to Vozrozhdeniya shortly before it turned into a peninsula. What drove them to this wretched corner of the Earth was again Ken Alibek, the defector from Russia:
It is clear, when you destroy tons and tons of their weapons, it wouldn’t be possible to kill everything. And now, what we know, is this island is contaminated.
And he was right. They found the anthrax pits, took some samples back, and found that they were still alive and could even be used for a potential terrorist plot. In 2002 the U.S. returned, this time with the intent of destruction. 8 warehouses were burned on the freshly created peninsula. Just because the island is one of the most noxious places on the Earth, it does not necessarily keep people away. Chris Pada is the only reporter I’ve found to have visited the island (he also interviewed Lepyoshkin). He did this by meeting up with a group of locals about to head to the abandoned peninsula. He called these people “scavengers” because they have been stripping apart the facility and the town since 1996 to sell or use the parts. While Pada notes the respectful silence the scavengers give to this infamous town the general attitude is unworried (“I don’t see any microbes”). Pada also noticed the 8 burned warehouses that the U.S. government destroyed earlier in the year. An unnerving fact is that Pada found many things the warehouses held still intact, but a U.S. Defense Department Official still claims all the anthrax is destroyed from the bleach pits they were buried in a decade earlier.
Whatever has claimed to have been done to neutralize the island does not compensate for some strange diseases occurring around the dying watermass. Even during the Soviet time, in 1971, a superstrain of smallpox had reached mainland from a scientist on a boat in the Aral Sea. In 1999 a 9-year old boy who lived near the shores of the Aral Sea died of the plague. Also in 1999 there were two cases of anthrax infecting people in Kazakhstan near the sea.
The Aral Sea seemed to hit rock-bottom with experts agreeing on no hope of a complete recovery. What was once the fourth largest lake in the world turned in to a massive dustbowl covered in salt plains. The rain is less frequent, the air more deadly, the temperatures more extreme, the wind more harsh. However in the Aral’s darkest hour some hope still lies yet for this doomed sea.
A New Hope – The North Aral Sea:
While the Amu Darya fed the Aral Sea from the south, the Syr Darya fed the Aral Sea from the North seemingly splitting the lake in half. The Syr Darya created the smaller northern region in Kazakhstan connecting through a small 8 mile gap to the larger southern portion mainly in Uzbekistan. It is in the much smaller northern region where progress is being seen today, no matter how small. The Kazakhstan government couldn’t save the whole sea but they realized that the 8 mile dam could amputate the dead and decaying southern portion from the much healthier northern portion. The Kazakhstan government, whose maximum spending ability is less than half of Wal-mart’s profit for 2006, put together $68 million to build a dam known as the Kok-Aral. The Kok-Aral has become the center of attention for those who still live by the Aral, it has helped regain 40% of its surface area since the dam was built and the water raised over 9 feet using just the Syr Darya.
An issue with the dam is that it is low, which will not allow the North Aral Sea to reach previous levels, and so with a $126 million loan from the World Bank, a second dam is going to be attempted. Those who live by the northern section of the Aral Sea are ecstatic. Everything from better weather to a renewed fishing industry is giving everybody a positive attitude. The dam is a local attraction and people like to hang about it fishing. An ecosystem is being restored here. A sign in Aralsk, once the greatest fishing port on the sea, is patiently waiting for its return. A sign in the town reads “The sea has left our harbor, but it hasn’t left our hearts.”
Ultimately though, the northern part of the Aral Sea is just a fraction of the entire thing. The feeling of hope quickly dissipates the farther south one goes past the Kok-Aral dam. There are no easy solutions to this problem. Uzbekistan has an archaic self-absorbed government that shows no signs of saving its portion of the sea. The profit from the cotton slave business is good enough for now, even as the salt from the receding sea and excessive pesticides kills arable land daily.
The story of the Aral Sea is a sad one. Even if the northern part returns to previous levels it will no longer be considered anywhere near the 4th largest lake in the world. It will have rejoined a class of mediocre lakes all around the world. But what’s the point of this Aral Sea story, why did I go so in depth into it? Well the question I ask myself, and I ask all of you, is this a trend that will be repeated in the future? The Aral Sea is not the only ecological disaster and they are not shrinking in numbers. There are trails of garbage miles long in the most remote parts of the Pacific. There is a radioactive town and forest in Ukraine. In China one of the world’s longest rivers is almost void of life because of pollution. At first these things seem to start small, for convenience. Is the Aral Sea a manifestation of future events or is it a freak accident?
The evidence points to the former. The reason why the Aral Sea began to shrink and die was not because of a natural climate shift, it was first and foremost a man-made disaster. But the irrigation canals were not made for pure evil purposes, they were simply made to ultimately create a profit. While there are plenty of benefits and positive aspects to capitalism, with the human population growing at an exponential rate, there are only more unlimited wants in an otherwise limited planet, so a greater need for resources is a natural reaction. Fresh water seems to be resource of the future and we can see how quickly it can disappear. The Aral Sea is disappearing in less than a half-century. That is less than one lifetime. I am here to suggest some humble wisdom for the human race that is likely on the minds of anybody who ever thinks of these things – not everything can be a game. In physics we’ve learned how relative everything can be, but even in physics there are admittedly some things that are not relative. This is also true for life. The need for freshwater for plants, animals, and humans is something that needs to be heavily invested in without profit or even an attempt at profit. If one is greedy with water and attempts to profit off of it then one is most likely guilty of some of the most awful crimes of life. Water was not made for Company/Government/Person A to pollute and Company/Government/Person B to profit and yet this is exactly the direction our planet is heading in without a bit more sincerity to our home. The Earth is our home and it is the only thing that provides for us – nothing else does. As I will explain in a different entry those who sniff future profits are attempting to monopolize the water “business.” But if you are still certain that disasters like Aral only come from incompetent archaic rulers, it just might be time to reconsider.
I encourage discussion, comments, and clicking on the links. I really looked hard for them and it is where most of my information came from. The videos are amazing and the articles are thought-provoking. For such a terrible disaster it is almost not spoken about. Some of the articles I had to use were years old just because of the lack of reporting from the region. Any other things on the Aral Sea, feel free to share.