Climate change is fueling the disappearance of the Aral Sea. It also takes away the livelihood of residents

MUYNAK, Uzbekistan (AP) — Toxic dust storms, anti-government protests, the fall of the Soviet Union — for generations, none of that has stopped Nafisa Bayniyazova and her family from making a living growing melons, pumpkins and tomatoes on farms around the world. Aral Sea.

Bayniyazova, 50, has spent most of her life near Muynak, in northwestern Uzbekistan, tending the land. Farm life was sometimes difficult, but generally reliable and productive. Even as the political turmoil caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the world around them, the family’s farmland produced crops, with water flowing steadily through the canals coming from the Aral and surrounding rivers.

Now Bayniyazova and other residents say they are facing a catastrophe they cannot defeat: climate change, which is accelerating the decades-long demise of the Aral Mountains, once the lifeline of the thousands of people around them.

The Aral has almost disappeared. Decades ago, deep blue and full of fish, it was one of the largest inland waters in the world. It has shrunk to less than a quarter of its former size.

Much of its early demise is due to failed human engineering and agricultural projects, now coupled with climate change. Summers are hotter and longer; winters, shorter and bitterly cold. Water is harder to find, say experts and residents like Bayniyazova, because the salinity is too high for plants to grow properly.

“Everyone continues in search of water,” Bayniyazova said. “Without water there is no life.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second piece in an AP series on the once-vast Aral Sea, the lives of those who lived and worked on its shores, and the impacts of climate change and restoration efforts in the region. The AP visited both sides of the Aral, in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to document the changing landscape.



For decades, the Aral – fed by rivers that relied heavily on the melting of glaciers and crossed the landlocked countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – contained meters of fish, caught and shipped throughout the Soviet Union .

The region boomed and thousands of migrants from across Asia and Europe flocked to the coast of the Aral Mountains, where jobs popped up everywhere from canneries to luxury holiday resorts.

Today, the few remaining towns lie quietly along the former seabed of the Aral – technically classified as a lake, due to its lack of a direct outlet to the ocean, although residents and officials call it a sea. Dust storms rage through it and rusted ships lie in the desert.

In the 1920s, the Soviet government began draining the sea to irrigate cotton and other cash crops. By the 1960s it had shrunk by half; those crops flourished. In 1987, the level of the Aral was so low that it split into two bodies of water: the Northern and Southern Seas, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively.

The United Nations Development Program calls the destruction of the Aral Sea “the most staggering disaster of the 20th century.” It points to the demise of the Aral Mountains as a cause of land degradation and desertification, drinking water shortages, malnutrition and deteriorating health conditions.

National governments, international aid agencies and local groups have tried – with varying degrees of effort and success – to save the sea. Efforts range from planting shrubs to slow the advancing dunes to building dams costing millions of dollars.

But experts say climate change has only accelerated the death of the Aral and will continue to worsen the suffering of residents.


Without the moderating influence of a large amount of water to regulate the climate, dust storms began to blow through the cities. They dumped toxic chemicals from a closed Soviet weapons-testing facility and fertilizer from farms into the lungs and eyes of residents, which the UN says has contributed to a rise in respiratory diseases and cancer.

Strong winds caused dunes to swallow entire cities and abandoned buildings were filled with sand. Residents fled. A dozen fish species became extinct and businesses closed.

Madi Zhasekenov, 64, said he watched his city’s once diverse population decline.

“The fish factories closed, the ships stranded in the port and the workers all left,” said Zhasekenov, former director of the Aral Sea Fisherman Museum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan. “It became just us locals.”

Dust storms, rising global temperatures and wind erosion are destroying the glaciers on which the sea’s rivers depend, according to a UN report. The remaining water becomes saltier and evaporates faster.

Melting ice and changing river flows could further destabilize drinking water supplies and food security, the report warns, and hydropower plants could suffer.

During a recent summer in the small desert village of Tastubek, Kazakhstan, farmer Akerke Molzhigitova, 33, watched as the grass her horses fed on dried up in the extreme heat. To save them – an important source of income and food – she moved them 200 kilometers away.

Yet dozens died. Her neighbors, fearing the same fate, sold their animals.


At Lake Sudochye in Uzbekistan, Adilbay and his friends fish in the remaining water pockets of the Aral. Their catch is small.

He holds his arms wide open, the size of fish from years ago. “Now there is nothing,” said Adilbay, 62, who goes by only one name.

When the water receded, a nearby fish processing warehouse was closed. Adilbay’s friends and relatives moved to Kazakhstan in search of new jobs.

That’s where fisherman Serzhan Seitbenbetov, 36, and others find success. Sitting in a boat rocking in gentle waves, he drew his net. Within an hour he reeled in a hundred fish, about two meters long. He will earn 5,000 Kazakhstani tenge ($10.50), he said – five times his previous daily wage as a taxi driver in a neighboring city.

“Now all the villagers are making good money as fishermen,” he said.

This is the result of an $86 million dike project led by Kazakhstan, with help from the World Bank, which was completed in 2005.

The embankment, known as the Kokaral Dam, cuts through a narrow stretch of sea and stores and collects water from the Syr Darya River. The dike exceeded expectations and led to a rise in the water level of more than 3 meters after seven months.

That helped local fisheries recover and affected the microclimate, increasing the number of clouds and rain showers, according to the World Bank. The population grew.

But it couldn’t reproduce life before the waters began to dry, says Sarah Cameron, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who is writing a book about the Aral.

“It doesn’t support the same number of people and the fishing industry in the same way,” Cameron said.

And the construction of the dike in Kazakhstan cut off the southern part of the sea in Uzbekistan from its crucial water source.

Uzbekistan has been less successful in its recovery efforts. The government has not undertaken any major projects like the Kokaral. Instead, the country planted saxaul trees and other drought-resistant plants to help prevent erosion and slow dust storms.

Agriculture, especially the export of water-intensive cotton, remained an important part of the economy. Millions of people worked – for years in forced labor campaigns – in the cotton picking industry, further undermining water supplies.

The discovery of oil and natural gas in the former Aral seabed prompted the construction of gas production facilities – and shows Uzbekistan’s little interest in recovery, experts say.

“Although there has been some recovery,” says Kate Shields, assistant professor of environmental studies at Rhodes College, “there was a kind of acceptance that … the sea was not going to come back.”

Government officials from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan did not respond to emailed questions from AP about recovery efforts, water scarcity and the impacts of climate change.


On her farm in Uzbekistan, Bayniyazova’s family dug an earthen pit, hoping to hold onto what precious little water remains.

“If there is no water, it will be very difficult for people to live,” Bayniyazova said. “Now people are barely surviving.”

She has no plans to leave her farm yet, but knows more hardships are likely ahead. Her family will dig deeper holes and see smaller harvests. They will do whatever it takes to hold on to the only life they have ever known.

“We will do everything we can,” she said. “Because what else can we do?”


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental reporting receives support from several private foundations. View more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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