I shouldn’t be standing where I was. The young boys playing on the crumbling ships shouldn’t be there either. The rusting metal and rotted wood were not designed as climbing frames and pedestals from which to jump. There shouldn’t be seashells crunching under my every footfall. I was walking along the seabed of what used to be the fourth greatest lake in the world, and I shouldn’t have been. The boys should have been learning how to sail, mastering the skills needed for a promising future in the fishing industry. The Aral Sea shouldn’t be gone.
The rivers feeding it were diverted by the Soviets, for irrigation on which the cotton industry is built upon. But now the survival of this relies on the forced labour of women, children, and men. The wrong decision was made and the effects have not been limited to economic destruction but also a population which faces an uncertain future in terms of their health and welfare. Where once water lay there is now only a desert of sand and dust, which is gathered up by the wind and breathed in by those who live in the area. Myself included while I was there, and I would often have to pull my t-shirt over my mouth and turn away from the gusts, my eyes squeezed tight. But I was only there for a day. Lung cancers are one of the biggest killers in the region, with other issues such as eye diseases, toxic water, air, and food, and tuberculosis. All to support a crop that will never be able to survive in the climate it has been transplanted to.
The boys walked the short distance from the edge of Moynaq, the once second largest fishing town on the shores of the Aral Sea, which now stood kilometres from its remains, to the “cliffs” where I stood. They asked me for pens and paper and I gave them my spares, and in return, they showed me around the old fishing boats that stand side-by-side as a memorial to the lost water; the best places to jump and climb, the hidden cabins and below decks that are now filled with litter and sand. And whilst I was having fun doing this, I just could not shake the sadness. What happened here was such a tragedy. The old man I had seen being led around the town by his granddaughter would have watched the waters recede year after year. As it happened in the last thirty years he probably had young children at the time. Maybe he didn’t allow himself to believe his worst fears, trying to remain the positive head of the household, only to see them realised before he could teach his sons the trade passed down to him by his father. Maybe he knew exactly what had happened and led town meetings to discuss their dwindling options. Maybe he saw his friends and family scattered as many left town in search of a brighter future, while he refused to leave everything he knew. He refused to leave his home. Maybe he lay awake at night asking what he was supposed to do now.
Not only was the Aral Sea one of the largest lakes, it was also one of the oldest. Meaning that for centuries upon centuries the people living on its shores would have been sea people. Fish people. It’s almost unimaginable that within thirty years this ancient legacy could be entirely gone.
When we left Moynaq, I glanced back to the tattered town symbol. A fish that perhaps was designed to look as if it were leaping out of cool waters, now looks flopped upon the baked sand, mouth open, in an eternal gasp.