The aurora was a promise of yet another scorcher of a day, as it’d been yesterday and tomorrow was bound to be, but right now it was fresh and cool as I sat on my pack on the first of Aralsk station’s two platform, making myself the first instant coffee of the day. A bright spot – Venus – shone benevolently in the eastern sky whilst, in the unknown lands laying beyond the railway lines, a canine rendition of the Aida chorus was in full swing.
I’d briefly ventured on the overpass, perched atop skinny pylons, rising above the railyard. The city lied below me, a town of corrugated metal roofs and the odd tall structure: a water tower, the gutted ruin of a factory, the shiny minarets of a mosque, the two cranes of the old harbour. Serenaded by the barking dogs, Aralsk slept.
I sat on my bag, coffee mug within reach and a bundle of printouts in my hands. It occurred to me that it was probably the first time ever that anyone sat, at dawn, under a lamppost in Aralskoye More train station, Staples yellow highlighter in hand, reading a bunch of academic papers with titles such as “Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin” or the more succinct “The Aral Sea Disaster”.
They didn’t make for an uplifting read. With the characteristic frankness typical of academics, the papers described the worst man-induced ecological disaster ever, the story of how economic planning succeeded in dissolving – literally into thin air – 74% of the area and 90% of the volume of the fourth largest body of inland water in the world.
It was a story of superlatives, all of them of the kind that one couldn’t really be proud of, which began at the time of the American Civil War. Conflict disrupted the clothing industry, with the Unionist blockading the Confederate ports out of which most of the world’s raw cotton was shipped. Nations scrambled to find alternative sources and, whilst Britain ultimately settled on Egypt and India, Tsarist Russia had its eyes set on the lands between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. These, with their relatively mild climate, and longer growing season, were to be Russia’s “cotton bank”.
What the Tsar started, Khrushchev improved. Cotton, the “white gold”, was to be harvested en masse by collective farms in what now are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to be then shipped to the mills of Russia and Ukraine and, ultimately, to the world’s markets, earning the USSR precious foreign cash. Between 1960 and 1988 production more than doubled, and the hectares of land dedicated to the crop increased by 40%.
It came, though, at a price.
Cotton, you see, is a thirsty bugger. It requires roughly twice the amount of barley or wheat, and a third more than tomatoes. That water needed to come from somewhere and only the two great rivers, the Jaxartes and Oxus of antiquity, could supply it. Canalization on a pharaonic scale was implemented, and the more water flowed into the crops, the less ended into the Aral Sea. What began as a diversion evolved into a proper water grab that got so extreme that literally nothing flowed from the Syr Darya into the sea between 1974 and 1986, whilst its northern sibling ran dry in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986 and again in 1989. It didn’t go any better when water actually ended in the sea, for on average the 1980s inflow was one tenth of what it used to be before 1960.
The results of this heinous policy didn’t take long before they appeared and, in terms of their impact, they were well worth of the Book of Revelation. Within ten years from the start of mass irrigation, Aralsk harbour dried up. Dust storms began rising in the air, as the fine sediments of the now dry seabed were whipped by winds into plumes that could be 500km long, so large that they could be detected by satellites, dumping between 40 and 150 million ton of sand and salt – sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, sodium sulphate – on the very crops that were being grown as far away as Turkmenistan. In a band as wide as 100 km around the former shoreline, climate changed. Deprived of the mitigating effect of the sea – which receded by half a meter per year – summers grew hotter but shorter, and winters became harsher and longer, effectively reducing the length of the growing season. Salt crept through the land, making it sterile, and entered the groundwater table, pooling with the salt in the air to wreak havoc in the local communities’ health. As a 2001 article published on “Environmental Health Perspectives” put it, “To have a drink of water in the Aral Sea area could be detrimental to your health”. The quantitative of salts dissolved in groundwater in and around Aralsk could be up to 20 times higher than in North America.
The Aral Sea populations began to suffer from the 1970s onwards. Abnormally high levels of tuberculosis, kidney failure, oesophagus cancer, hepatitis and still births were nonchalantly swept under the carpet by Moscow until the onset of glasnost and, ultimately, the end of the USSR. Still, it didn’t make much difference as the horses had all already bolted out of the stable and the door had, literally, evaporated.
I folded away my papers and crossed the deserted station foyer. By now a rich sunlight streamed into the waiting room, where a woman in a flower-print dress and headscarf slept on a metal bench. On the far wall, above a wood panelling, stood an enormous mosaic, depicting the moment when the men of Aralsk answered Lenin’s cry for help – his own collectivisation policies having triggered an enormous famine in Russia and Kazakhstan, with nomads slaughtering their own cattle rather than seeing it being pinched – and sent trainloads of fish to the affected regions.
A large square opened outside the station, with a luxuriant flower bed surmounted by the white wooden monument of a sailing ship. On my left, behind an old green coach bought second hand from France – and still wearing the marks “Voyages Pyrenées Rousillon” – stood the tan building of Hotel Altair. I knew of another such establishment in town, Hotel Aral, which could either be open or permanently abandoned depending on who you asked; Altair, instead, was very much in business, boasting rooms furnished with the latest post-Soviet décor, non-working aircon and common bathroom where an unseen guest was busy filling the shower with empty beer bottles.
As I sat eating a breakfast of fried eggs and dubious sausage slices, with just a dab of ketchup – I’d been given early check-in and brekkie for less than a tenner a night – I thought at my role there. How ethical was it to be a tourist in what could effectively be described as a disaster zone? Wasn’t it questionable to be visiting a place whose main attraction, whose main claim to fame, was the terrible, man-made tragedy that had befallen it? Had the lake remained healthily in balance, had the want of cotton never diverted these waters, would I have come at all?
I didn’t seek any self-justification in that dimly-lit, slightly greenish room, and I don’t now. I wasn’t a historian, a journalist or a researcher with a higher sense of purpose. My role in being there, besides answering a call that I’d heard since I was six and reading about the Sea on the “Junior Woodchucks Guidebook” was the same one that brought me to the Occupied Territories in Bethlehem: to see something with my own two eyes and, possibly, to understand Aral beyond the articles and damnatio memoriae I’d read so many times. I wasn’t there to peek into other people’s misfortunes, as much as I don’t enjoy photographing homeless people on the street; in fact, my secret hope was to find out that, at the end of the day, things weren’t as dire as the news reports made them to be. At that point of my lucubration my phone beeped. It was time to go.