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ARAL SEA. Where will you journey to for our Flatt Prize?

The Declining Aral Sea Port of Moynaq, and its Boat Graveyard

(Image: Adil Khan, all rights reserved)

Deep in the little known nation of Uzbekistan lies ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters’ – the Aral Sea. Located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, this inland sea used to be fed by two of the major rivers of the region: the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. That was, until the 1960s when the Soviet Union initiated a plan to divert these rivers in order to fuel cotton production in the region; which is incidentally still one of the country’s biggest exports.

(Image: Gilad Rom, cc-4.0)

Canals and river run-offs were created, greatly reducing the amount of flow into the sea. This process was continued for decades, slowly depleting the volume of water with no effective alternative sought in order to fix this issue. Even after Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country’s cotton production was the paramount priority, and the destruction of the sea continued; the remaining body of water slowly evaporating and inching further and further away from Moynaq, an Uzbek port town.

(Image: Adil Khan, all rights reserved)

I travelled to the region early in 2014 to witness the devastation for myself and it was truly a horrifying experience seeing the calamity of the area. My guide recalled the era of his childhood when he would jump into the sea and play with his friends, the sadness in his voice clearly resonant.

(Image: Martijn Munneke, cc-4.0)

And Moynaq itself used to be a thriving and bustling fishing port, now it is virtually a ghost town, dead of vitality and the remaining residents riddled by poverty and disease – the consequences of a series of other incidents in the region including chemical weapons testing carried out by theSoviet Union, as well as the overuse of pesticides which have polluted the fresh water supply.

(Image: Adil Khan, all rights reserved)

A report by the US Geological Survey also states that the tampering of this environment has severely affected the climate; making winters colder and summers hotter. Truly one of the world’s worst tragedies.

In the midst of this ecological disaster lie poignant reminders of the region’s more prosperous past. Ships and fishing vessels once used on the Aral Sea are now abandoned and scattered around Moynaq; many of them eerily rusting away; in what has been labelled a boat graveyard. They have become quite literally ships of the desert.

(Image: Adil Khan, all rights reserved)

The welcome sign at the entrance of the town displays a picture of a picture of a fish. A throwback to its former days, as are the sea shells which now litter the harsh, bitter, desert landscape. Where once the fourth largest lake in the world existed, now only howling winds and a sea of sand exist in catastrophic solitude.