In the 1960s, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers were diverted by the Soviet Union to irrigate cotton plantations. Deprived of its two main tributaries, the shores of the Aral Sea, which spanned from the North in Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan at its Southern tip, began to recede—taking with it the fishing industry, as well as much of the sustainable agriculture of both countries. The damming also left behind miles of desert where fresh water had once flourished, with sandstorms now becoming frequent during the increasingly hot, dry summers. And what remained of the waters of the Aral was turned into an hyper-salinated pool of agricultural pesticides, killing off most remaining fish and surrounding wildlife as well. Health problems and unemployment pushed droves of people into neighboring cities and towns. Such was the case with Tactubek. A once thriving fishing town of more than a hundred houses near the water’s edge, it now rests twelve kilometers away, with just twenty houses occupied primarily by fisherman and their families.
In 2001, though, after years of failed attempts by locals to construct a manmade dam, the World Bank together with the Kazakh government responded with the thirteen kilometer Dike Kokaral, an $86 million project, designed to raise the water level of the Northern Aral Sea by containing flow into the severely diminished Southern part of the Sea. Extirpated species of fish were reintroduced, and a Danish NGO donated fishing nets to local villagers. But catch levels are still very low, with yearly production projected at 10,000 metric tons for 2012. The main fishing plant, a sleek new structure, sits behind a large wrought iron gate, seemingly out of service for the moment. Just across the sandy road, camels graze around a pool of water crested with brown foam. From here the sea seems far from returned.
This multimedia presentation, produced with Paulo Siqueira, asks the question: can a new dam reclaim a lost sea and restore a way of life?
Click below to watch Nadia Shira Cohen’s “The Lovely Sea.”