Straddling the former Soviet Union countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, the vast arid aspect of the Aralkum Desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. But against this inhospitable landscape, bizarre memorials to a distant past present an eerie sight. Visitors to the remote region witness the rusting carcasses of once-great ships slowly rotting away – many miles from the nearest shore – and wonder what went wrong…
Decades ago, this desert was home to one of the largest lakes in the entire world. Known as the Aral Sea – which translates as the Sea of Islands – the huge body of water covered some 26,300 square miles from Uzbekistan in the south to Kazakhstan in the north. And the lake provided a vital lifeline for the local population in this remote and unforgiving part of the world.
In fact, a flourishing fishing industry once centered on the Aral Sea, providing a great source of sustenance and income for thousands of Uzbekistani and Kazakhstani people. And in the towns and cities surrounding the lake, everything from canning factories to restaurants were built to further the region’s bustling trade.
However, in the 1960s, everything changed. Back then, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were still part of the Soviet Union, and the Aral Sea – like much of Eastern Europe – was subject to the whims of the Kremlin government. And sadly, the centralized bureaucracy had instigated an extreme irrigation project in the region during the previous decade.
Hoping to improve the conditions for growing valuable food and cash crops in the region, the Soviet authorities decided to divert the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Instead of feeding the Aral Sea, as they had done for centuries, the tributaries would now be used to deliver water to the thirsty surrounding farmland.
By 1960 the majority of the water supply that had once flowed into the Aral Sea had been redirected elsewhere. And as a consequence, the lake began to dry up. Over the following decade, in fact, water levels dropped by about eight inches per annum. But this rate would soon accelerate; throughout the 1970s, the Aral Sea shrank almost three times as fast each year.
In the 1980s, however, things got even worse. During that decade, the Aral Sea saw its water levels drop by as much as 35 inches every year. And even though the irrigation plan had achieved some success – it had made Uzbekistan one of the world’s top producers of cotton – its ecological side effects were catastrophic.
By 1997 the Aral Sea had been reduced to just ten percent of its size back in the 1950s. Moreover, what had once been one body of water was now split into four separate lakes. While the southern part had divided into an east and west basin, the northern section had become increasingly cut off from the rest. Meanwhile, a small linking lake had also formed.
As the Aral Sea shrank away, then, the region’s once-busy ports found themselves farther and farther away from the waters that had once sustained them. What’s more, there was very little for the area’s fishing community to catch. The lake’s salinity had increased as its volume had declined, you see, creating toxic conditions in which few creatures could survive.
Today, the former port of Moynaq is mostly a town that time forgot. Located in west Uzbekistan, the settlement is now almost 100 miles away from what remains of the Aral Sea. And even though Moynaq’s abandoned buildings and silent streets do little to set it apart from many other struggling post-Soviet cities, the ghosts of its maritime past seem strangely out of place in this parched desert.
Signs bearing images of fish, for instance, hang incongruously over the arid and dusty town. Elsewhere, Moynaq’s canneries sit abandoned and forlorn, the failed fishing industry having long rendered them obsolete. Most eerie of all, however, are the skeletal fishing boats that remain stranded in the desert, seemingly doomed to never sail again.
In Moynaq, these ghost ships haunt the landscape; great hunks of rusting metal, which once carried as many as 40 men, now lie lifeless. Unable to escape to shallower waters when the Aral Sea began disappearing, the vessels have been left stranded. And without a fishing industry to sustain them, the majority of local people have moved away – leaving this strange ship cemetery all but forgotten.
Across the border in Kazakhstan, the city of Aralsk is another place where the Aral Sea’s fishing industry once thrived. But as the years passed, the shore retreated further away from the port until a distance of more than 60 miles stretched between them. As a result, the once prosperous city population began to struggle with unemployment and attendant poverty.
Today, however, the landlocked Aral Sea has begun to creep back towards the derelict harbor buildings of Aralsk. In 2005 the Kazakhstanis completed work on the Dike Kokaral, a dam built with the aim of preserving the northern segment of the decimated Aral Sea. And even though the project appears to have exacerbated the problem elsewhere in the area, the waters close to the city have, in fact, begun to recover.
Now, the former port of Aralsk sits just seven miles from the Aral Sea. But while fish have started to return to its waters, the lake is still too far away for the city’s stranded ships to return to work. Instead, the once-valuable vessels continue to rot away unloved – just as they do in Moynaq – slowly turning the same color as the rusty desert landscape.
And for the dramatically reduced population who remain in the region – now known as the Aralkum Desert – life is tough. One anonymous female resident spoke to Russian broadcaster RT in 2010, saying, “You can’t see salt in the air, but you feel it on the skin. And you can feel it on a tongue.” She went on to explain that many locals, including her own husband, had grown sick as a result of the lake drying up.
Aside from the salt, there are other problems plaguing the beleaguered citizens of places such as Moynaq and Aralsk. With the Aral Sea already awash with fertilizers and pesticides from the surrounding fields, the lake’s gradual disappearance has left vast swathes of the surrounding landscape coated in toxic chemicals. Furthermore, harsh winds blow this pollution around as dust, creating debilitating and fatal health problems throughout local communities.
And if all this weren’t bad enough, the Soviet legacy has brought about other deadly dangers. For instance, the region is also home to an abandoned communist-era research base where lethal experiments with weaponized diseases were conducted. Once remotely situated on the island of Vozrozhdeniya, the facility has become alarmingly accessible as the Aral Sea has receded. Indeed, some now consider the scenario a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen – particularly since a smallpox outbreak from 1971 was confirmed to have escaped from the toxic site.
In recent times, the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan governments – as well as neighboring countries – have been working to arrest the Aral Sea’s decline. But despite their efforts, the eastern section of the lake dried up completely for the first time in 2014. Many observers now believe that only a drastic change in land management can reverse decades’ worth of damage.
In 2017 the Mayor of Aralsk oversaw the removal of the decayed ships stranded in the desert. Nevertheless, interested parties can still view the incredible hulks at the Aralsk Port Museum. And Moynaq still appears trapped in time, the relics of its once-proud fishing fleet scattered across the barren desert. But will their hulls ever feel the lap of water once more? Well, they do say that hope floats…