Once the world's fourth biggest lake, the Aral almost disappeared - and holds a lesson for all
By Umberto Bacchi and Claudio Accheri
ARALKUM, Kazakhstan, Dec 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Bakhyt Kirbasov was young, tamarisk flowers would blossom by his home every summer, a cascade of electric pink among the grass that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Four decades on, sand has bleached the landscape.
Colour has vanished in this, the world's newest desert.
Camels stride across sandy scrub dotted by greying tufts of vegetation. A parched land that was once rich pasture surrounding the long-lost Aral Sea.
Experts say the landscape that Kirbasov has seen wither in his lifetime - its cobalt sea and rolling greens all but gone - should serve as a warning of what can happen when man meddles with nature.
At a time when climate change and population growth make ever greater claims on the environment, experts say the desert that swallowed a sea holds lessons for all.
"We have to be more responsible when we use our natural resources," said Ramazan Zhampiissov, head of the United Nations Development Programme's sustainable development unit in Kazakhstan.
In Kirbasov's tiny Kazazh village of Aralkum, the pink plants of his youth are only memories; now a strip of shifting dunes occupies the farmer's dusty courtyard.
Already the desert has gobbled part of the village, a barren outpost that sits about 50 km northeast of the parched bed of the Aral Sea in the south of this vast central Asian country bordering Russia and China.
"After the drying up of Aral Sea ... the area started to turn into a desert," said the 67-year-old, who has been at the forefront of local efforts to beat back the desert.
Once the world's fourth biggest lake, the Aral almost disappeared after the then-Soviet Union diverted feeder rivers to boost cotton production in the 1960s, causing what the U.N. described as one of the world's worst ecological disasters.
The shrinking waters left behind dust, salt and pesticides that sandstorms would carry as far as the Himalayas.
Groundwater fell, soils grew salty, killing vegetation, and a once-thriving fishing industry collapsed, delivering health problems on locals, from stunted growth to respiratory diseases.
No plants, no wildlife.
But the partial success of recent initiatives to salvage what is left is generating some hope for the future.
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS
Sand dunes first showed up near Aralkum - a farming village of bumpy dirt roads and a few hundred houses with pens for camels, horses and goats - about a decade ago, Kirbasov said.
Moved by the winds they piled up at its western edges and have since forced about a hundred families to move to the opposite side of the railway cutting through the village, according to local officials.
Every few months, ploughs push the sand back.
Dust storms are a weekly nuisance. "When the wind blows, people get inside their homes and close all doors," Kirbasov, a tall man with grey moustache, said as he watched a rare shower of rain drops fall outside his window.
Tired of shoving away sand only to see it return, about eight years ago the retired railway worker tried a different approach: he planted saxaul, a local bushy tree that grows with little water on sandy, salty soil, behind his house.
It lacked the pretty pink blossom of his childhood but as the plants grew, they stabilised the surrounding terrain and sheltered his home.
"It's good now, my house doesn't get covered (in sand)," said Kirbasov.
In 2016, his approach was extended to the whole village.
Saxaul and other shrubs were planted to form a 400-meter protective barrier on Aralkum's outskirts as part of a pilot project by the UNDP.
The green fence has helped hold the sand back - now the local mayor, Saken Sadykbayev, would like it to double in size, something the village cannot afford.
"There is only one way to win this battle, to plant more saxaul," the mayor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More shrubs are being planted by the government but far away from the village, deep inside the Aral's dried-up bed in a bid to nip sandstorms in the bud.
Now the vision is to flood the lost lake with new colour.
"We want to make the bottom of the sea green," said Bektemir Zhusupov, who manages the nursery where the plants are grown near the village of Akbay, about 40 km south of Aralkum.
Supported by foreign aid, Zhusupov's team is greening about 2,500 hectares a year - planting rows that run 8 km long and stand 25 metres apart.
Similar efforts are underway in neighbouring Uzbekistan, but funds are limited and the area to cover huge - meaning results have so far been modest, said Philip Micklin a geographer from Western Michigan University, who studied the Aral for decades.
Since the early 1990s, when the scheme was first tested, Kazakhstan has greened 163,000 hectares of former sea bed - almost 3 percent of the whole, according to official statistics.
"It has made some difference, but the salt-dust storms are still a big problem," said Micklin.
FISHING FOR LIFE
The government also wants to bring water back.
In 2005, it completed a dam separating the north of the lake from the dessicated south.
Along with efforts to increase water flow from the Syr Darya river, the dam has allowed water levels to rise by 4 meters, according to the World Bank, which sponsored the project.
Benefits are evident in nearby Karateren, a village about 90 km south west of Aralkum.
Once on the coast line, the village is still perched about 25 km from the shore but the local fishing industry has came back from the dead.
Near the dam, fishermen on sidecars speed along dirt tracks, carrying fresh-caught bream, carp and pike perch to collection points from where it is trucked on for processing.
Arslan Tulemisov, a 25-year-old handler, said on a good day he gets up to 500 kg of fish, which he re-sells at 260 Tenge ($0.7068) per kilo.
Business is good, he said. "That's why we are here".
Official statistics say annual fish catch in the region has nearly quintupled since the 1990s. Karateren's population, which dropped from 5,000 to less than 1,000 after the local economy collapsed, is growing and now hovers near 1,700, said the village mayor, Zhienbayev Kudabay. "There is no unemployment," he boasted, sitting at his office's desk. "All people work in fishing."
The government hopes to add another 4 m (13 ft) of water in coming years but there are concerns that climate change could endanger the gains as Himalayan glaciers feeding the Aral melt in rising temperatures.
"The problem of provision of water resources will get worse every year in general for all world's countries," said Murat Beysenov, who heads a water management unit at Kazakhstan's ministry of agriculture.
Yet, the Aral's unlikely comeback shows the good man can do by meddling, along with all the harm.
"People wrote off the Aral Sea ... but the environment in many cases is very resilient," Micklin said. "With careful planning and a major effort often times you are able to bring it back – at least partially."
($1 = 367.8700 tenge)
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi and Claudio Accheri @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths)
Reporting for this story was supported by the United Nations Development Programme.
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