Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Graveyard of Ships

Tuesday April 19th

Aralsk formerly used to lie on the Aral Sea, the dessication of which is recognised to be one of the world's worst ecological tragedies. The inland sea is fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers (the ancient Jaxartes and Oxus) which flow from the south, but Soviet irrigation projects to divert water to grow cotton, particularly in what is now Uzbekistan, meant that by 2007 the sea had shrunk to a tenth of its original size and split into several smaller lakes. The ecosystem of the Aral Sea and its river deltas has nearly been destroyed by increased salinity, and the exposure of salt pans has resulted in dust storms and climate change
The shrinkage of the sea has resulted in the abandonement of fishing vessels above the waterline, and one of the main things Rowena and I wanted to do on reaching Aralsk was to visit the famous ship's graveyard at the former fishing port of Zhalanash. We were able to arrange a trip there through a local Aral development NGO Aral Tenizi, and this morning set off in a 4WD jeep for the 75km drive out over the dried up bed of the Aral Sea. Along for the ride was the very congenial Walter Kelle, a visiting German economist spending 3 weeks with the NGO in an advisory capacity, and a fellow inmate of the Aral Hotel.

Very little is left of the ships - there were originally about eleven, but now there are only the rusting remains of about three, as they have been broken up for scrap metal.
Due to the shrinkage and salinisation of the sea, the fishing industry has been decimated, though more recently an attempt to revive it has resulted in the introduction of salt water flounder - not with great success due to local resistance to eating an unfamiliar fish.

In 2005 a dam project was completed which has contained and raised the level of the North Aral Sea, although not to the extent hoped for as Aralsk is still high and dry. However, salinity levels have decreased and freshwater fish are beginning to repopulate the waters. It is expected that the flounder will disappear. Aral Tenizi is working to encourage new fishing cooperatives, and we visited one on the edge of the new sea.

I was absolutely delighted on return to the hotel when Walter kindly offered my the use of the bathroom in his room - a luxurious suite compared to our rather bleak accomodation - where I was able to partake of a proper shower to set me up for the weeks ahead!

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