Thursday, September 6, 2012 – Nukus, Uzbekistan
We attended a lecture at our hotel concerning the water situation of the Aral Sea. The main river in Turkmenistan was called Amu Darya, previously named the Oxus River. (This river has had many names throughout the centuries depending on who occupied the area). Many ancient settlements along this river had been abandoned because the river’s course changed every century or so and villages ended up with no water.
There was a theory that a 3rd river, which previously fed the Aral Sea, had changed course and may now feed into the Caspian Sea. This lack of water from the 3rd river was one of the many reasons the Aral Sea’s depth decreased. But of course the main reason the Aral Sea was disappearing was because of all the water diverted by channels or canals from the Amu Darya River, which decreased the amount of water fed into the Aral Sea each year.
Today most of the people in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan) lived in irrigated areas and the water being supplied to them was from the Amu Darya River. Without this water their land would convert back to a desert. The Aral Sea, which was once a huge lake fed by three rivers was now divided into two smaller lakes (Big and Small Aral Seas) and fed by two rivers the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Syr Darya. The 3rd river, which had now dried up or had been diverted to the Caspian Sea, came from the Ural Mountains in Russia.
100 cubic kilometers of water that was once fed into the Aral Sea every year has now been lost. Originally the Aral Sea was shallow; approximately 100 feet deep but it was a productive sea that supplied a lucrative fishery for surrounding areas. There were so many different species of fish that they actually used the less popular species as firewood during their winters.
Today the Aral Sea was dying, not only was it disappearing but the salt content had increased to such a high amount that all fish and sea life that previously lived in the sea had died, just like the Dead Sea. We were told by our lecturer, that the Dead Sea had 200 grams of salt per liter; whereas, the Pacific Ocean had less than 40 grams of salt per liter. The big Aral Sea (or lake) had approximately 120 grams of salt per liter and the dammed up small Aral Lake in the north had 14 grams of salt per liter. The smaller Aral was being managed by people trying to get natural water from small streams to feed into it and apparently some fish were starting to come back. The big Aral was not managed other than when the water level of the small Aral increased too much they would let some of the water out of the dam into the bigger Aral Sea portion. Even with this help the Aral Sea was shrivelling each year.
The reasons the Aral Sea was disappearing were complicated. The most obvious being the artificial diversion of water from the Amu Darya River by canals used for irrigating the desert to allow for cotton and other agriculture farming in Central Asia. Most specifically for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who used 70% of the water diverted from this river.
As if the canals weren’t bad enough, there were other problems with their canal system and one was the inefficiency of the water used from the canals. The canals leaked and the method used to irrigate the fields was by flooding, not spraying or using a drip system. There was no incentive for the farmers to be more efficient because their water was free. They were told what to grow and their only customer was their government. There was no reason for the farmer to be innovative. Why take a risk when everything was dictated?
The flooding method for irrigation was a problem because the excess water was drained back into the canals (or river), which fed the farms lower down the system. This excess water returned to the canals, was not filtered and would include salt, fertilizers and other pollutions from the higher-up farms. The upstream farmers had no respect for their downstream brothers and they put anything into the water without consideration of other people using the water.
Another organic reason for water was not being fed into the Aral Sea was the natural silt accumulation coming down from the mountains each year. The silt plugged up and diverted the flow of water from the two rivers. One ancient name for the Amu Darya River actually translated into ‘crazy'; because its flow would change direction and leave villages dry, forcing them to move elsewhere.
Another major problem was that previously, in ancient times, this whole desert area was once covered by another sea, which had disappeared long ago. But the ancient sea had left it’s mark with layers of salt below the surface of the desert and when the government started irrigating to plant crops, the water brought this salt back up to the surface and prevented plants from growing. Today, there were huge areas of the desert where nothing could grow. This situation was called Secondary Salination. It was also another reason many villagers had to move away to start over again in another location. If you could not grow food or have water to drink you had no choice but to move away to survive.
Because of the changes in global weather their glacial melt from the mountains had been decreasing each year as well. This lack of ice melt further reduced the water flow to the rivers. Turkmenistan controlled the water canals from the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan was vulnerable to their control. They must keep a good relationship with their neighbor, Turkmenistan, to keep their water supply. The agricultural industry consisted of mostly cotton and rice but included wheat, corn, sunflowers, melons and vegetables. This industry was too big and supported the livelihood for most of the villagers in Uzbekistan, so to stop the canal system was out of the question.
We all suggested different ways to help the disappearance of the Aral Sea and every suggestion was shot down by our lecturer. The most frequent answer was “that would cost too much money”. It will be interesting to watch the fate of the Aral Sea. Our speaker said that during Soviet occupation the Soviets said, “that the Aral Sea must die like a soldier in war”. They understood that the Aral Sea would not survive when they diverted the water from the Amu Darya and they did not care. Our lecturer believed the Aral Sea had already died but had not disappeared. He hoped that a solution would come up in the near future to turn the situation around! My guess was that the Aral Sea was dead, the fishing villagers had already moved away and these two countries had a bigger problem, how to keep the water in their two rivers flowing. They should make their canal system more efficient and solve their river water problems because this water was keeping their people and their countries alive. I am really sorry the Aral Sea was disappearing but why flog a dead horse when there were bigger issues in the forefront?
One such problem was with another neighbouring country, Tajikistan. The Soviets had planned to make a dam using the Syr Darya River. This would stop the river flow for 15 years until they filled up their dammed area. There has been talk of continuing with this project. Uzbekistan did not want this project to continue because it would stop their water flow for 15 years! How would they survive? And if they did build this dam and collect the water, what would happen if there was ever an earthquake (which was possible). The foundation of the dam could be damaged (another possibility due to the fact that the foundation was built 50 years ago), the water would flood the villages in the different areas causing a great deal of damage to all countries involved. This has been an interesting debate between the Central Asian countries.
Later in the day we took a bus ride outside of Nukus. Vlad drove us to (Moynoq) Muynak, a fishing village that was previously located on the shores of the Aral (Orol) Sea. Today, this town was 200 kilometers away from the Aral Sea because it was drying up. As explained above, the main reason the Aral Sea was disappearing was because water had been diverted from the Amu Darya River by canals used to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya river fed into the Aral Sea and irrigation for cotton fields had been diverted from this river preventing it from putting all of it’s water into the Sea.
We had a new guide today, named Mirigul, which meant mercy flower. When we started off driving to Moynoq the traffic was really slow as there was a caravan of little vans and larger buses taking pickers to the cotton fields. They even had a police escort. The vans were filled up with pickers with their sleeping bags and supplies piled up on the roof of the vans. The pickers did not go home, they stayed for a week, up to two months away from home to pick all of the cotton. They were billeted out and slept in villager’s homes. Our driver Vlad, managed to skirt around a bunch of vans but the police drove up and made us go to the back of the line again. Rats!
The smaller vans used in this caravan were called Marshrutka by the locals and were normally used in a shuttle bus service from A to B. You could get off anywhere but not tell the driver where to go. These vans were everywhere in Uzbekistan and usually packed full of people. They were very small Korean Daewoo vans. The transport service was cheaper than a taxi and faster than a bus. They were Korean models manufactured in Uzbekistan and recently GM purchased this plant. We heard on the local news that GM was coming out with a new model and people in Uzbekistan were lining up to place their orders for this car. The government must have hired all these buses and vans to bring pickers out to the cotton farms.
This time of year was called the cotton campaign and everyone had to pitch in to pick the cotton, whether you liked it or not. Cotton was picked by hand and it had to be picked when it was ready, before their rain season arrived in late October. University students were required to pick cotton as well as government workers and anyone else the farmers could find. They actually sprayed the cotton plants to make them turn brown and dry up. This made the cotton buds open up all at the same time and much easier to pick the cotton. When the cotton was all picked the villagers cut the cotton plants down and took them home to be used as firewood for their Tandoor clay ovens where they made their daily bread. The seeds in the cotton was separated out and squeezed at the cotton ginny to make cottonseed oil used for cooking. Other than a small amount kept for subsequent seeding, the remaining seeds were fed to the cows. Cotton was a crop where everything was used up each year and the fields had to be rotated with something different like grain or corn for the next crop before cotton could be planted there again. In Uzbekistan 6 million tons of cotton was picked each year. And pickers were required to pick 50 kilos per day.
A whole fishing industry had been closed down in the city of Moynoq and decayed fishing boats were just sitting on an isolated sandy desert today. A haunting and sad feeling surrounded this settlement as we drove through it. The town had shrunken from 60,000 to 5,000 people. The people that stayed had to be self-sustaining with their own vegetable gardens, chickens and cows. We were told that many of the husbands worked abroad and sent money home to their families for survival. There was an operating school and a small museum detailing their history; as well as, a decaying movie theatre and fish plant, both of which had closed down years ago.
We passed a soccer field where boys were practicing and stopped the bus to give away some hats but the coach called them inside a dugout. Our boys not to be discouraged decided to find the gate in their fence and talk to the coach to let him know we came as friends. They could not find an opening in the fence so they all climbed over one-way or another! They had a successful meeting and gave away the Canada hats.
Next we stopped to visit the Moynoq museum but it was closed because everyone was taken away to pick cotton and it was locked. But lucky for us one of the elder ladies had phoned somebody in the village who ran up to the museum with a key to let us inside. The village’s fish cannery had been open from 1924 to 1974. The museum showed different animals that had once lived in the area but when the Aral Sea receded, it also affected their wildlife in the area, including birds and plants surrounding the village. Everything dried up! There were paintings and photographs showing the activity of a productive fishing village that once lived here. It was very interesting and well documented.
The outside of the museum was decorated with tulip paintings. This was because tulips grew wild in their mountains and our guide told us this was where tulips originated. We thought they were discovered in Holland??
Driving to Moynoq, it actually started to sprinkle with rain. This was the first rain we had seen since we left Vancouver on August 11th. It didn’t last long a few minutes but the weather was cooler here than it ever had been. We found the rainfall ironic because we were driving to a fishing village that was now stranded with no water on the desert and it was the only rain we had since arriving in Central Asia.
Mirigul told us that this year their President decreed that there would be no divorces granted. This was the year of the family whether you liked it or not.