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Monday, March 1, 1999 Published at 15:27 GMT

The return of the Aral Sea

By Central Asia Correspondent Louise Hidalgo

The port of Aralsk lies on the northern most tip of the Aral, on the western edge of Kazakhstan.

Louise Hidalgo reports from Aralsk
Until the communists came, the Kazakhs were mostly Nomads moving lightly across the vast landscape in search of water for their flocks. It was the Soviets who forced them to settle and for decades thousands made their living fishing and hunting in the lush marshes and forests of what was the Aral Sea.

But in a single generation, all that disappeared.

[ image: Salt encrusts the earth like ice]
Salt encrusts the earth like ice
Ships and fishing boats now rust on the bed of what was once Aralsk's bustling harbour and as the sea retreated over the horizon, with it the local factories died.

The Aral used to be the largest body of water between the Caspian Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Now in the miles of desert which was the sea, winds whip up whirling storms of salt, pesticides and sand.

For years, the people of Aralsk have been clamouring for some force as powerful as Moscow was to come and make all well again. Everyone over 30 will tell you how it used to be. How, as children they played on the water's edge while their fathers fished the sea.

Now, everything has gone, the Aral, the Soviet Union and with them their livelihood and future. Even the climate has changed. Winters are longer, the summers shorter.

[ image: Infant mortality is amongst the highest in the world]
Infant mortality is amongst the highest in the world
To the young, the Aral is just a story. Real life means leaving.

From time to time, foreigners swoop in to assess the situation and draw up progress reports. The locals joke that if everyone who'd come to study the Aral had brought a bucket of water, the sea would be full by now. Meanwhile, they've been left with no one to blame and no one to turn to. Until now.

Aleshbaye Avdigazeavich is a vigorous man in his late 40s standing in his fur hat over six feet tall. He used to run a shoe factory. Now he's the mayor of Aralsk. "It was useless" he says to wait for the world to act. "We had to do something. You'll have to see for yourself but the sea is coming back".

[ image: Aralsk's mayor Aleshbaye Avdigazeavich says all this will soon be water]
Aralsk's mayor Aleshbaye Avdigazeavich says all this will soon be water
And indeed, so it seems it might be. Twelve kilometres from Aralsk, among the skeletons of the old fishing boats, a small spit of water is slowly creeping northwards across the salt and crusted dunes. The mayor waves his hands in excitement. "Look how the grass is growing again" he says "and here the soil is damp. There's water beneath".

In the next few months, it'll reach all the way to Aralsk.

You have to travel more than 100 kilometres south, along bumpy dirt tracks to see the reason for this apparent miracle. There, in the middle of the Aral, past the dry irrigation ditches, and houses swallowed by sand, bulldozers are feverishly carrying sand and mud to a 14 kilometre dyke that is slowly taking place across the sea bed.

[ image: Using tons of earth, a dam is slowly being built]
Using tons of earth, a dam is slowly being built
The idea is simple. The small northern Aral, which split long ago from the far larger southern basin, is fed by the Syr Darya river - the Jaxartes of ancient times. If we keep those waters in the mayor explains and build up the Little Aral, we can stop the evaporation that has condemned so much of the rest of the sea.

For the moment, it does seem to be working. On one side of the dam is a desolate waste land of sand, iced with salt and snow stretching as far as the eye can see. On the other, there's water.

The mayor is delighted at our surprise. "You know some men go to the bar after work" he says "to drink or chat up the girls. I just come and gaze at the sea".

Everyone knows it will take more than a small dyke of sand to really save even this one small part of the Aral. Twice, bits of the dam have already been swept away.

[ image: Salt resistant fish have recently been introduced to the Aral Sea]
Salt resistant fish have recently been introduced to the Aral Sea
Soviet planners knew decades before that the massive irrigation that so disastrously bled the Aral to make collosal crops of cotton grow in central Asia's deserts, would eventually dry up the sea. They even concocted a grand plan to divert the rivers of Siberia to try to make the Aral whole again. How, the cynics ask, can one small dam, fragile and underfunded, reverse so many years of carelessness and the huge irrigation projects that still continue?

If nothing else though, the dam has done one thing. It's brought hope - something that until now is rare here as rainfall.

Back at Aralsk's crumbling Intourist hotel, the receptionist, Leana, tells us that yes, she too has heard the sea is coming. I haven't seen it myself she admits but everyone says it's true. They say our men folk might have work again and our children a future and that one day the sea might even come all the way back to Aralsk.

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