Last weekend a group of us made a trip to the Aral Sea. It was a chance to witness what brought MSF to Uzbekistan in the first place. Sunday morning I crawled from our tent to watch the sun emerge from what remains of the Aral Sea. I’d never seen a sunrise over water before. It’s a beautiful thing. Something so simple that happens every day.
Our trip started after lunch on Friday, heading north on the road to Kazakhstan. We stopped the night in Moynak, what used to be a port town. Only skeletal buildings remain of the fish canneries and shipping industries on which the town was built. Now there’s a ship cemetery in Moynak, where you can see rusted ships abandoned in the desert. To make it easier for tourists who make it this far (including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon), the corroded carcasses have been dragged from where they remained on the sea floor and lined up like cars in a parking lot, or tombstones.
We stayed the night in a former MSF guesthouse, though there was no running water (I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the smell of a pit latrine). After breakfast we drove toward the vacant sea floor. As we left Moynak, the roads deteriorated from asphalt to gravel to tracks in the dirt, left behind by Lorries transporting materials to the scattered oil or gas excavation sites that have sprouted in the ever expanding desert. At 44.0731°N latitude and 58.4576°E longitude (our doctor has GPS on his phone) we stopped to stretch our legs and take a break from the rutted ride. There was nothing but sand in all directions, yet we knew the sea had been there because the ground was littered with seashells. We drove nearly 3 hours to reach the water, and the sea continues its retreat.
We camped on a plateau overlooking the eastern shore of the Aral Sea. A few meters from our camp, I sat on the edge of a cliff and looked out on bushes growing where fish used to swim. Small waves break on what’s now a silt beach. Walking to the water means stepping in the sand and sinking 6 inches into sludge. I don’t know what to think. Progress is a synonym for development, and development means more resources. The planet manages to compensate for all we’ve taken from it, but what’s the cost to ourselves? Somehow it all seems so complicated, yet obvious. The Jordan River is now drying up as it’s diverted for development projects. Turkey is planning to dam the Tigris River to generate more electricity. And in my home country we are in the midst of the most massive oil spill in our history.
The Aral Sea was the fourth largest inland body of water. Today the sea has dried up to 5% of what it was a generation ago because the rivers that feed it are diverted to irrigate cotton fields. Left behind are salt, sand, and other particles that are swept up and blown throughout the region, contributing to higher rates of respiratory infections, including TB, than in other parts of the country. The health care system wasn’t great to start with, and TB control suffered. In 2010 Karakalpakstan has one of the highest rates of drug resistant TB in the world.
After breakfast, we tore down camp, packed the truck, and headed home. I listened to my mp3 player on the way back, hitting repeat when Love and Rockets’ “No new tale to tell” played:
Our little lives get complicated;
It’s a simple thing.
Simple as a flower,
And that’s a complicated thing.