From Nukus we were able to find a shared taxi to the former fishing village of Moynaq. The 220 km drive took 4 hours and was far less bumpy than one would expect for being so remote. As the 6 of us snuggled close in the tiny car, the clouds hung low threatening us with rain. Passing through the small villages we could see first hand how shaped the land had become from irrigation canals siphoning water from the Aral Sea to the cotton fields.
The Aral Sea Disaster
The Aral Sea is shared between Kazakhstan in the north and Karakalpakstan (region of Uzbekistan) in the south. At one point the Aral Sea was the world’s 4th largest lake, but since the 1960s it has shrunk to roughly an eighth of its former size. The sea shrunk largely in part to a Soviet project to promote cotton production. Cotton is a thirsty crop; and it was hard for me to understand why the Soviet Union decided to use Uzbekistan, an arid region, for its cotton production. Despite the work being done, cotton still amounts to 60% of Uzbekistan’s exports.
Our destination, Moynaq, was a former thriving fishing village that now lies over 100 km from the water’s edge. Some of the once fisherman, that are lucky enough to be employed, work for the very beast that took their fish away, the cotton industry. Lung disease, Tuberculosis, and anaemia are rampant because the water has been so contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers and salt. It is said to be one of the most toxic places on the planet to live. As we entered the outskirts of the town we passed an eerie sign showing a fish and welcoming us to Moynaq. As if on cue, it began to rain, the misty kind of rain that is just fitting for such a depressing trip. We bumped down the muddy streets, passed abandoned buildings, turned heads, and the random goat to the Moynaq Ship Graveyard. Seeing the massive rusty boats now sitting on an empty seabed showed me what an impact we can have in such a short time.
Beyond the disease that is rife in the villages, the shrinking of the Aral Sea has created a salty toxic wasteland. During sandstorms, the salt and other chemicals blow across the desert plains as far as the Himalayas.
It was a strange feeling to be in a place that only 40 years ago was an oasis, knowing that in an even shorter time may cease to exist at all