A message scrawled in peeling white paint on the rusting side of one of the many fishing boats stranded on the sand summed up the situation : "Good-bye Aral!"Kara Kuma photos
I looked upon the tragid death of Lake Aral, one of the Soviet Union's greatest ecological disasters, with some bitterness. We in the west know almost nothing of this environmental catastrophe. In just twenty years the lake's water level has fallen by 14 meters and its waters have retreated as much as 150 kilometers from its former banks.
This drastic alteration is due to man. More particularly, it is the fault of there having been dug a 1350-kilometer long irrigation canal from the river Amu Daria, Aral's main tributary, to the southernmost part of the Kara Kum desert, which has been dry for centuries. When the immense project was planned no-one could have imagined that it would create such serious ecological problems, but these problems nevertheless now exist. Besides, the scheme has not even made as much use of the Amu Daria's waters as was once expected. The canal runs between tow sandy banks and thus loses 30% of its flow to drainage and evaporation.
The fishermen have had to invent new forms of work for themselves. The massive fish-processing plant on Aral's shores, which employs 1550 workers, continues to work only as a result of the transportation of 7000 tons offish from the Pacific Ocean every year. Meanwhile, the whole of Amu Daria basin is dying, its water and plant life are disappearing inexorably and the salt content of the river has risen from 4 parts per thousand to 23 parts per thousand.
The whole region is rapidly becoming desert. Salt carried from the dried up area of the lake has rendered land uncultivable as far as 300 kilometers away and has been blown 1000 kilometers to India.
Professor Sirbay Bazarbay often perfaces his remarks with the statement :"When the sea still existed...". He has been working for the Karakalpatzk branch of the laboratory studying Aral's problems since 1976. He refused, however, to divulge too many facts and figures to me. "We have the highest rate of illnesses in the USSR, even mothers' milk is toxic. In this area water is so intensly employed for agriculture, via the canals, that it becomes undrinkable. Pesticides and other chemical products, including ammonium sulphate, are dumped in the lake willy-nilly, after being used to increase cotton production."
The professor, who is a small-statured man of great stubborness, is carrying on an unequal struggle against the authorities. "The proportion of salt has continued to increase", he told me, "But this still isn't the worst problem. Temperatures have also changed, rising by 3-4 degrees more in summer and falling by equal amounts in winter. There is enormous interest in the wealth that lies hidden underground here, but nobody does anything about cleaning up the ground itself. I'm working with all my heart because I was born here, I live here, my children live here and I shall die here". The Professor looked around him, at the sand dunes dotted over what had once been the now remote sea shore and said : "When the sea still existed..." as if he was talking about the distant past.
I had striven for some time to obtain a permit to visit this area, which is generally forbidden to westerners. At last I could satisfy my keenly-awaited wish to cross the Turkmenistan desert over the ancient caravan-way for Ciardzou, which means "meeting of four roads", all four of which are by-ways of the silk road.
This land, which is so poor and barren, hides gas, oil and gold. As a result the nomads have grown used to seeing exploration wells drilling in the subsoil while their camels now graze on the scarse foliage of this territory amidst the tracks made by jeeps and lorries carrying supplies to the oil wells.
The people live contemporaneously in two worlds. They are still attached to their old ways, but now have access to all kinds of modern gadgets. People still draw water from wells by the time-honured methods and bake bread in the conical ovens which seem like little volcanoes. At the same time the villages can boast electric light, the radio, shops which sell clothes, cigarettes, batteries and plastic trays.
The women of Turkmenistan, who are Indo-European in appearance, do not wear the veil, despite being Muslims. They will, however, bow their heads and cover their mouths with a corner of their "kainats", kerchief, as a sign of respect towards old people. Their clothes are the same as their mothers' and grandmothers': highly coloured dresses which fall to their ankles, and trousers with patiently embroidered fringes. This traditional garb is worn with pride since the women are proud to belong to one of the twenty ancient tribes of the Turkmenistan race. Their main work is raising children. Most families are large sihce children are still considered a source of wealth. "God gives you them, God takes them away", they say resignedly, whenever one of their 10-15 offspring dies. Having fewer children would almost be considered a family disgrace".
In a commune near Ciardzou, I had a chat with Karryev. He was the oldest man in the village and sported a long wide beard, a long cotton coat and sheepskin waistcoat, or "telpek". He said he had 62 grandchildren : 38 boys and 24 girls. He was very content about his preponderance of boys, if there had been more girls than boys he would have considered that he had no reason to boast. Male heirs are vital in this culture. A woman who has never given birth to a boy literally remains without name. Then when her first sons are born, she becomes "Ummm-Ali, Umm-Ahmed", mother of Ali, mother of Alimed.