Wastelands have been created on the salt-encrusted sea bed where the water has disappeared from the Aral Sea and unusable agricultural areas contaminated fertilizer, pesticide and defoliates sits idle. Salt and chemicals and sewage have also contaminated groundwater supplies. By one estimate only 20 percent of the people living in the area along the Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan border have access to safe drinking water.

Huge dust storms that kick up from time pick up residues and corrosive salts and fertilizer and pesticide chemicals in the wastelands and carry them near and far, affected millions of people living in the general area around the sea. The toxic dust settled in layers on plants, huts, animals and people and is associated with declines of wild animals and crop losses. Large areas of agricultural land are unusable. Of the 170 or so wild animals once found in and around the sea, only 40 remain.

Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times, “The desiccated seabed was carpeted with a toxic sediment of salt laced with chemicals from the cotton fields, which duststorms then deposited over thousands of square miles. Drinking water was poisoned. [Source: Martin Fletcher, The Times, June 23, 2007 ]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “ Besides toxic levels of sodium chloride, the dust is laced with pesticides such as DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, and phosalone—all known carcinogens. The chemicals have worked their way into every level of the food chain. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 +/]

History of Pollution and the Aral Sea

Eve Conant wrote in Discover magazine: Like the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the Aral Sea has no naturally occurring outlets and over time collects salt from river deposits. With less water flowing in, the process accelerated. By the late 1980s, 10,424 square miles of seafloor had become desert and was layered with toxic salts. Water salinity had risen from 10 grams per liter in the 1950s, when the sea was healthy, to about 26 grams per liter in 1990. (At 35 grams per liter, it would be as salty as the ocean.) All 24 species of fish disappeared. The water "wasn't quite salt paste yet, but nothing could survive in it," says Masood Ahmad of the World Bank, who was project leader for the massive undertaking in Kazakhstan. "No biological life was possible." [Source: Eve Conant, Discover, September 2006 |=|]

“The effects rippled throughout the region. Without this source of food or water, only a few dozen of the 180 known native land-animal species survived the desiccation. When the fishing industry collapsed in the 1980s, thousands of locals fled their villages to search for a new life in larger cities. Those remaining behind eked out an existence on the land. Tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions, and infant mortality rates quadrupled, with acute respiratory diseases accounting for 50 percent of the deaths. Potable water became scarce throughout the area, and even breathing the air was risky. Chemical runoff from agricultural fields simply dried on the seafloor and was ferried back into towns with the first winds. |=|

“By 1990 the shrinking waters had separated into two parts—the northern "Small Sea" in Kazakhstan and the southern "Large Sea" in neighboring Uzbekistan. As the seas evaporated, hard-packed sand replaced water around the hundreds of islands that had dotted the sea and had provided a haven for wildlife. When the waters vanished around Vozrozhdeniya Island, a Soviet germ-warfare facility for open-air testing of anthrax, plague, and smallpox in the southern Aral Sea, U.S. officials in 2000 became so worried that they sent funds and experts to clean up buried stockpiles of the remaining lethal bacteria. In 2002 the U.N. estimated that winds carried 200,000 tons of salt and toxic sand each day throughout the Aral Sea region and thousands of miles beyond, sometimes reaching as far as Russia's Arctic north—a problem that still continues. "Everything is polluted with herbicides, metals, and salt," says the Aralsk regional hospital's head doctor, Arginbau Asanbaev. Experts believe the ecological disaster has displaced more than 100,000 people and affected the health of more than 5 million people throughout the region. |=|

Health, Disease and the Aral Sea

The toxic dust and salty grit from the dry lake bed carried by the dust storms is linked with increases in birth defects, typhus, cholera, gastritis, respiratory and eyes disorders, tuberculosis, childhood anemia, various kinds cancers and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Some women have as many as 10 miscarriages.

People exposed regularly to the dust have high rates of anemia, goiter, respiratory diseases, throat cancer, kidney and liver problems, and stomach and intestinal ailments. In some places 85 percent of all people have anemia. The rates of cancer of the esophagus are among the highest in the world. Children gets rickets from poor nutrition. One study found high levels of DNA damage which may be linked to the high cancer rates.

The high infant mortality rates are often linked with the high rates of anemia among women who drink water with sand and stones. which accumulates in the kidneys and causes lose of blood during urination, They don’t eat enough protein to compensate for the blood lose. As a result the women become anemic and give birth to stillborn or handicapped babies. Studies found that 40 percent of the people that live in the Aral Sea area suffer from kidney disease linked to salinization.

Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times, “ Even today, 29 per cent of local people suffer from respiratory illnesses, and 47 per cent of women of fertile age suffer from blood diseases such as anaemia. Rates of cancer, miscarriages, infant mortality, birth defects, tuberculosis, kidney and skin diseases have soared. Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “ Besides toxic levels of sodium chloride, the dust is laced with pesticides such as DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, and phosalone—all known carcinogens. The chemicals have worked their way into every level of the food chain. Today Karakalpakstan registers esophageal cancer rates 25 times as high as the world average. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a major problem, and respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and immunological disorders are widespread. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015; Martin Fletcher, The Times, June 23, 2007]

Vozrozhdeniya Island

A top-secret facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: Located on Vozrozhdeniya Island—which, now that the sea is gone, is no longer an island—the facility was the main test site for the Soviet military’s Microbiological Warfare Group. Thousands of animals were shipped to the island, where they were subjected to anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and other biological agents. The U.S. State Department, concerned that rusting drums of anthrax could fall into the wrong hands, sent a cleanup team there in 2002. No biological agents have been found in the dust since then, but sporadic outbreaks of plague afflict the surrounding region. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 +/]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time. |:|

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120 degrees F to prevent the spread of the pathogens. |:|

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said. |:|

Aral Sea and Fishing

The Aral Sea was once full of clear water and was teaming with fish. There were 24 native species, including sturgeon and carp. It produced 160 tons of fish a day, or 45,700 tons a year, one sixth of total Soviet catch, and employed 60,000 people in the fishing industry. There was also a lucrative trapping industry, with the lust Syr and Amu deltas supplying a half million muskrat pelts a years.

By the early 2000s, the fish and muskrats were largely gone. The water was too salty now for fish and their spawning grounds had disappeared. Some indigenous species survived around the deltas. Black Sea flounder was introduced and survived in the main body of the northern Aral Sea. But by the early 2000s, the commercial fishing industry in the Aral Sea was dead. The boats that used catch fish are scattered around the remains of channels built on the desert of salt and sand. Fishing villages are ghost towns.

Ilan Greenberg wrote in the New York Times in 2006: “ In the Aral's heyday, 20 thousand tons of fish were harvested per year... With the disappearance of sea, fish and the ecologically interconnected freshwater lakes that supported livestock, the Aral region quickly lost population. Half of Karaterin's people had migrated to larger cities during the past two decades.” In the 1960s fish lived just outside the front door of fishermen’s homes. Most days, Zhaisanbayev, the son of a fishing boat captain, climbs into his truck parked at the edge of his grim village of scattered shacks and stray dogs and drives 32 kilometers through an infecund desert of gray sand and colorless prickly weeds to reach the water's edge. [Source: Ilan Greenberg The New York Times, April 7, 2006 ^]

Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times, “The Aral became heavily saline. Its 30 species of indigenous fish died. Its fishermen spurned the salt-water flounder, introduced in 1979, and moved away. The desiccated seabed was carpeted with a toxic sediment of salt laced with chemicals from the cotton fields, which duststorms then deposited over thousands of square miles. Drinking water was poisoned. [Source: Martin Fletcher, The Times, June 23, 2007 ]

Fishing Returns to the Northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan

The completion of a 13-kilometer-long dam has helped restore fishing in the northern Aral Sea. In 2007, Peter Finn wrote in the Washington Post, In the cool of one recent evening, after tending to his herd of 19 camels, Puzblay Seytpembetov and four companions pushed his small single-engine boat out onto the placid waters of the Aral Sea to lay fishnets. In the morning, he predicted, he would haul in flapping carp and pikeperch. It is a daily task that until recently had seemed forever lost to the folly of humankind. 'It's good to be back on the water. I'm happy for that,' said the weather-beaten fisherman, who turned to camel herding when the shoreline withdrew. 'But it's not the sea it used to be. That's the truth.' [Source: Peter Finn, Washington Post, July 11, 2007 ***]

“Since the dam's completion in 2005, the surface area of the northern sea has expanded from 1,440 square miles to more than 2,000. Fish stocks have slowly been replenished with the help of a Danish environmental group; sturgeon will be reintroduced to the sea this year... Engineers say that a second phase of the dam project, if it is financed, could bring water up to the Aral's former northern shores, including to Aralsk....The men of Zhambul for years drove eight miles along a rutted track on the former seabed to reach their boats. In the past two years the journey has shortened as the water has advanced. 'We believe the water will come back to us, right to the village,' said Kurmanay Kopzhavov, 34, a fishing inspector who lives in Zhambul. 'We have a future again.' ***

Eve Conant wrote in Discover magazine: “With rumors circulating of fishermen making upwards of $800 a day, villages closest to the dam are already vying for international investment. Zhienbayev, who grew up not far from here, gazes at the fishermen drawing in net after net. "I'm so happy. I've waited my whole life for this. Not long ago this was all sand; we called this the Dead Sea." One of the fishermen from his village, 26-year-old Darxhan Rysmakgombetov, comes to shore with dozens of carp flapping violently in his net. "I caught these in an hour," he says, beaming. Until recently, the only fish that could survive the salt levels were brine shrimp and a special salt-tolerant flounder that had been introduced in 1979. Locals thought the fish was "very strange looking," said Zhienbayev. "No one wanted to eat it." [Source: Eve Conant, Discover, September 2006 |=|]

Reporting from Karateren, Kazakhstan, Ilan Greenberg wrote in the New York Times: “ In the blue night haze, Gamin Zhaisanbayev and several dozen other men haul heavy gear into their trucks as boys sitting on stoops quietly watch their silhouettes. Zhaisanbayev and his neighbors are preparing for a job not undertaken in this dusty village for more than a generation: They are going fishing. In dozens of villages like Karateren, frigid green water now laps against long-abandoned harbors and fishing vessels hastily retrieved from open air desert graves have been put back to sea. [Source: Ilan Greenberg The New York Times, April 7, 2006 ^]

Previously, Zhaisanbayev worked at a fish processing plant. But that plant closed in 2001, and to support his three young children he took a job at a social club in a larger town. "When the sea came back I knew I must fish," Zhaisanbayev said. "It is what we wait for." He said on a good day now, fishing for carp and flounder he can come home with 10,000 tenge, or about $85, in his pocket, an astronomical profit in a region where many people survive on little more than a few dollars a day. "The sea is the main thing," he said, brown eyes gleaming...Zhaisanbayev says many are now returning to the fishing fleets. Karaterin has no store and is hours away from any heavy industry, but its population has grown to 1,700 people from a low of less than half that two years ago. A new mosque is being built.^

“For many in the region, the return of the water is confirmation that the Aral's past is prologue. Kudaibergen Sarzhanov, a spry former Soviet minister of fisheries for Kazakhstan during the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev, plans a 2009 release of the 30,000 fish he has been incubating at home, financing his project from a small UN grant and funding from his local government. Sarzhanov has spent his retirement collecting the almost extinct usech, a rubbery fish native to the Aral that can eventually grow to 18 kilograms, or 40 pounds. He is eager to release his hoard. "I live together with the fish," he said. ^

“At the Komushbosh Fishing Hatchery, a modern fish incubator funded by a $143,000 grant from Israel, the plan is to release as many as 30 million young sturgeon, carp and flounder into the Aral and its many nearby lakes when water levels are at full level, double the number of fish scheduled for release in 2006.” ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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