During my trip I have seen many environmental disasters. In fact, everywhere I go they seem to have become the norm rather than the exception. There is always a good excuse or reason. In Indonesia, I have driven for two days in Sumatra without seeing the natural rainforest, only endless plantations of palm trees, grown to produce the oil found in our cosmetics and food. I have seen some the world’s most polluted cities in China, covered by a constant dark mist. Even in remote areas such as the himalayas in Tibet, I have found huge dumps filled with plastic garbage as far as the eye can see. And I could go on and on.
But never has any ecological catastrophy been as visually spectacular as the drying up of the Aral sea.
How did a whole sea dissapear? In the 60′s under the Soviet regime, Russian central planners decided to boost the production of cotton in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. To do this they created new cotton fields in the middle of the desert much further from the rivers with inappropriate open-air irrigation systems. Most of the water evaporates before even reaching the fields. Cotton is a crop requiring phenomenal amounts of water, and by deciding to increase its production, the soviets actually knew that the Aral sea would dry up. For most part of the year, the rivers ceased to reach the sea, which started to evaporate.
In the next 50 years, the sea did dry up as expected. All the fish went extinct with salinity increasing tenfold, and the fishing industry dissapeared. What is left over now is a huge desert covered with salt and pesticide residues from the cotton fields. The amount of rain days dropped dramatically, changing the climate of a huge region around the sea. Dust storms filled with salt and pesticides plague the local inhabitants, infant mortality and malformations are amongst the highest in the world. And so on.
But what is even more disturbing to me, is that the cotton production actually continues to go on as before in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. All these disasters are not enough to diminish the production or to at least switch to some less water intensive crops, more adapted to the desertic climate.
There’s a memorial at the former fishing town of Moynaq now located 18 km from the shoreline. It explains the dramatic consequences of the disaster, and presents it as though it was some sort of natural catastrophy for which there is nothing to do… Even more absurd is Bukhara’s natural museum. They have a room dedicated to the Aral sea with some cliche sentences like “Even at the shoreline of a sea, save every drop of water”. Not a word about the origin of the problem though. And guess what the next room is about? Yes, it glorifies cotton production! Connect the dots, as Steve Jobs would say…
The Aral is also one example of a very widespread phenomenon. The dead sea in Israel for example is drying up as well, with all the water from the Jordan river being used to cultivate fruits and vegetables in the desert. In fact because of excessive exploitation, most of the world’s great rivers are drying up and do not reach the sea anymore.
Finally I see it as an extreme illustration of the impact men can have on nature. A warning to the overly optimists who argue that scientists will always find a sollution as an excuse not to make changes in their lifestyle. For the Aral sea, it is too late.