Tuesday, September 09, 2003

the aral sea

this morning, i was in nukus, the capitol of karakalpakistan, an autonomous republic on the western end of uzbekistan reserved for the, you guessed it, the karakalpaks. It’s also among the poorest areas in this country. during the 19th centuries, the russians decided to raise cotton in what is now uzbekistan, taking advantage of a shortage in world markets because of the american civil war. cotton does not really belong here, so much of this place is desert, so the russians built a series of irrigation canals. during the soviet period there was even greater pressure to increase agricultural production and so the irrigation system was expanded. as a result, the aral sea is shrinking. this morning I was in nukus and hitched a ride to moynaq, formerly a port on the aral sea, now far from the coast. i walked along the seabed around the rusting beached hulks of fishing boats. it was greener than i imagined, little scrubby trees have slowly taken root along the sea bed. as the sea evaporated the salination level increased in the remaining water. now none of the indigenous creatures can live in its waters. they say it is one of the worst ecological disasters in the world.