Dual ecological disaster: the disappearance on the Aral Sea
Wednesday, December 05, 2001
Moscow News, By Sergei Sossinsky
We stood on a hill at the edge of a hundred-foot drop, the desert stretching away beyond the horizon. The Soviet encyclopedia I had consulted said: Muinak, fishing settlement and pier of the Karakalpak autonomous region at the mouth of the Amu Darya; 1,600 residents, mostly Russians. Steamship line across the Aral Sea.... Well, the Aral Sea was gone. I had seen the environmental consequences of dams on the Volga, flooded forests and church belfries standing in the water. But I had never imagined I would be looking at a dried up sea bed and walking on it.
Technically speaking the Aral Sea is a lake. But its huge size - the steamship line from Aralsk to Muinak was nearly 300 miles long - justified the word "sea." It was the fourth largest lake in the world and many times larger than the Dead Sea in Palestine. What happened to the Aral Sea? Most locals mention 1960 as the year when it became apparent that the sea was shrinking. There were two rivers flowing into the sea (note the past tense), the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Both passed through the major agricultural lands of Central Asia. By extending the area of these lands without taking due account of the consequences, people had reduced the flow of water in these rivers. Indeed, the Amu Darya no longer reached the sea. Instead of growing larger and larger as it sped to the sea, the Amu Darya became smaller and smaller until it petered out in the desert sands.
There were now two lakes in the Aral Sea, and they were shrinking. And it was very difficult to get to these lakes since they were surrounded by wetlands. People who had lived all their lives on the sea shore might never catch a glimpse of the sea again.
In addition to losing its fishing industry, Muinak had lost its sources of water. The most common sight in the streets of the settlement were groups of children pushing and pulling carts with water containers. American relief organizations had bought pipes and hand pumps and installed them so the local population had a reliable source of water.
Muinak's neighborhood is an eerie sight: a graveyard of ships, tugboats, barges, cargo ships. All these vessels lie on the dry sea bed in various states of disintegration. The names of some of the boats are still legible. Many other ships have already been scrapped.
The Russians came to Muinak in the second half of the 19th century. Most of them were Ural Cossacks who were exiled to these parts for their freedom-loving spirit. The Russians and Karakalpaks have lived side by side in the area for more than a century. Fishing was the town's chief livelihood. Today, most Russians have left; only the elderly who have nowhere to go remain.
The Muinak Fish Cannery stands idle. The port facilities have been abandoned. Hopelessness is the word that comes to mind when one walks through the streets of Muinak. Owing to the shortage of water locals have virtually stopped growing fruit and vegetables.
As if all of this were not enough, there is something even worse looming literally just over the horizon. It is a place known as Vozrozhdeniya (Revival) Island, which was the site of one of the Soviet Union's most secret bases. None of the locals could tell me when the island had received its name, which was so incongruous, considering the purpose of the base - development of bacteriological weapons. Previously the island was known as Nicholas Island. Today this bit of land is a peninsula.
Vozrozhdeniya Island has been abandoned, and, although there were reports in the mass media that America has taken upon itself the function of guarding the former base, it is in fact forsaken. The germs that have been produced at the site include anthrax, plague and twenty other deadly diseases. Moreover, there are sites where contaminated livestock were buried, and it is a well known fact that these sites remain dangerous for ages. Yet two years ago there was still a radio operator living at the weather station, and scientists visited the island without taking any serious precautionary measures.
The former island included housing for the people employed at the base, a kindergarten, the weather station, an airstrip, and laboratory facilities. The base has been quite thoroughly vandalized.
Thus, Muinak remains wedged between two environmental disasters: the disappearance of the sea and the existence of buried bacteriological weapons. Yet these two factors may come together in various frightening ways. Thus, biologists know that the deserts surrounding the Aral Sea contain rodent carriers of bubonic plague. Once the sea is gone, these dangerous territories will merge into a single high-risk area which could serve as the breeding ground for a major epidemic.
The part of Muinak that once jutted out into the sea is called Tiger's Tail, and at one time these parts were indeed inhabited by tigers. Not only tigers but many other animal species, to say nothing of fish, have disappeared from the area. It looks as if before long the human species will also become extinct here.