Magazine article Newsweek International

A Sea of Misery

Magazine article Newsweek International

A Sea of Misery

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, the town of Muynak was a bustling port along the Aral Sea. City workers still paint the street signs with images of seagulls and ocean waves, and here and there the masts of ships poke up between the buildings. The coast, though, is nowhere to be found. "I've never seen the sea," says Mural Najimov, a 25-year-old local who's filling six jugs with salty water from a public well. Sergey Lipatovich, 67, former port captain, walks among the rusted hulls of ships, anchors dug into sand that used to be sea bottom. Thirty years ago, he says, the water level reached more than two meters. Now the shore is 200 kilometers away. "There have been so many projects to save this water," he says. "And not a single one worked."

Once the world's fourth largest inland sea, the Aral has shrunk to less than a third of its original size, leaving behind a string of port towns to fight off the encroaching desert on their own. The 35 million people in the region--a tenth of whom live in a disaster zone--face a steady rise in disease and a further drop into poverty. "They are learning to adapt," says Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan desertification expert Kural Atanazarov, "by running away if they can."

There's no single villain to blame for this mess. Dismal Soviet land- use policy played a role, but so have corruption, poverty, global warming and drought. Rivers may dry up completely, say experts, unless regional governments come up with a coordinated water-sharing plan. Even if they did, it wouldn't help the people who live near the Aral: experts say the sea will never be restored to its former size.

Water seemed plentiful enough until the Soviets tapped the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan in the 1960s. Water levels downriver dropped. Nowadays, the Central Asian states harbor too much resentment to strike a solution. …

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