In Karakalpakstan, an obscure corner of central Asia where the waters of the Aral Sea have turned to desert, Jack Shenker finds a nation fleeing ecological disaster and authoritarian rule
-Original photography by Jason Larkin
Ziyo hunts by day and flies by night, with a polished Winchester shotgun tucked under one arm and a cigarette between his lips. The van he drives can fit eight to ten people, sometimes twelve at a push, and for the past 15 years it’s nearly always been full for the border run. Under the cover of darkness Ziyo wends his human cargo out past empty houses; they are isolated at first but then tumble together into hamlets, all weather-cowed and crumbling-stone. No one talks. The desert watchtowers which mark the beginning of Kazakhstan are still thirteen hours away, and until they are reached there is little to do but stare out of the window as the salty landscape rolls on by in the gloom, coarse and jagged as if it had been ripped through with an old razor. Ziyo will return here; most of his passengers will not. Tonight, as on so many other nights in this obscure corner of the world, a homeland is being emptied of its people.
No one knows exactly how many have left Karakalpakstan, a former Soviet Republic nestled deep within the bizarre confluence of ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of Central Asia. Official figures put it at over 50,000 in the last ten years alone – roughly 10% of the population – though this figure doesn’t include the passengers in Ziyo’s van, or the vans of dozens of other people smugglers like him, who pay around $500 each to obtain falsified passports from corrupt government officials and then slip out under the radar of the authorities, voyaging north to a new life. But although the numbers behind this exodus are disputed, the reasons for it are clearer. Within a couple of hours of setting off from their departure point – a nondescript village in one of the southern frontier provinces near Turkmenistan – Ziyo and his companions will pass within a hundred miles of what scientists have called the largest anthropogenic ecological disaster of the 20th century, a man-made climate catastrophe so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society for generations to come. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten’iz – a sea which fled its shores.
On their way out to the Kazakh border Ziyo’s van will pass something else too: a prim neatly-trimmed square in the Karakalpak capital of Nukus. There two flags flutter in the wind; one is that of Karakalpakstan, and the other is the flag of Uzbekistan, de facto custodians of this semi-autonomous republic since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The writing above the doorway of Karakalpakstan’s nearby parliament building is in Uzbek first and Karakalpak second, telling passers-by everything they need to know about the balance of power within this uneasy coupling of nations. This story is not unique; the personal identity crises, communal resentments and violent backlashes that have flowed from Uzbekistan’s iron-fisted control of its neighbour form a familiar echo of countless other nationalist conflicts around the globe. Nor is climactic environmental disaster particular to this region, though few other places have suffered from it quite so relentlessly. Yet it’s only here, in this overlooked slice of distant, desiccated farmland, where two of the biggest challenges looming over 21st century humankind – ecological change and fragmented, exclusionary nationalism – have become irrevocably enmeshed.
Deep within the delta of the ancient Oxus river, the largely bone-dry path of which Ziyo is now shepherding his midnight flock down, Karakalpakstan – a nation which few have heard of and which was declared by one writer to be ‘the worst place in the world’ – may just be offering the rest of the planet a foretaste of its future.
Nukus is a stark, space-flooded city that magnifies the smallness of its occupants. Its central squares are splotched with trees and criss-crossed with paths wide enough to accommodate a military parade; they stretch off into infinity, only occasionally interrupted by signs of activity – a cluster of schoolgirls, the empty faded-neon aqua-park, a clutch of corrugated iron garages where a lone man is sorting through empty vodka bottles. “Love is dead”, reads the graffiti on one makeshift metal wall. “Long live Linkin’ Park”.
Sulton has lived in Nukus his whole life and knows its secrets; after sitting me down in his plain, white-walled living room, where a display case shows off the best family china and a single, dusty globe, he instinctively unplugged the telephone from the wall before talking. “Everywhere is bugged,” he explained, jerking his thumb vaguely in the direction of Jaslyk, a small town two hundred miles away where a ‘severe regime’ prison houses hundreds of Uzbek President Karimov’s political enemies, some of whom have reportedly been boiled to death. Jaslyk is referred to locally as a gulag, the place from which no one ever returns. It’s only one cog in a much larger Uzbek security apparatus that ruthlessly suppresses domestic opposition to Karimov’s ruling clique and has established, according to Human Rights Watch, a ‘culture of impunity for torture’. “If they catch me talking, I go there and don’t come back,” said Sulton simply.
Like most of the Karakalpaks I meet, Sulton is friendly in a detached, somewhat apprehensive way. At 44, he’s old enough to have served under the Red Army and proudly recounts his experiences of guarding missile bases as far north as Siberia. But contact with the outside world has come to Sulton in scattered fragments: a pirate Hollywood movie here, a Russian TV news snippet there, a fencing tournament he competed in last year. By and large the universe beyond Karakalpakstan’s borders remains shrouded in fog for its citizens, penetrated only by a few very specific torch-beams. The opposite is true as well; outsiders can be afforded rare and enchanting insights into Karakalpak society, but mostly Karakalpakstan feels closed and private, dominated by a Soviet-era distrust of the other.
As I followed Sulton out of his house and into a sunset-drenched Nukus, the city threw up a tantalising glimpse of its organs, the heft and muddle of daily life: a bout of shoving at the marketplace; the chaotic unloading of a truckful of squashes in the dusty shadow of a apartment block; the eerie weave of the town’s strange central heating pipes, which snake their way silently and unapologetically through the streets at head height, clad in glistening silver insulation and appearing curiously like a single inverted vein, plucked from beneath the pavement’s concrete skin and sewn back on top of it with neat, surgical precision. But for the most part this looked like a world sealed shut: buildings faceless and anonymous, faces expressionless, streets tight-lipped and solemn as they radiated out in autumnal gold from Independence Square.
We headed out south to the cotton fields. On the way we passed numerous checkpoints; international journalists are effectively barred from the country, particularly sensitive areas like Karakalpakstan, and each time soldiers flagged down our creaking Volga, Sulton gulped nervously. “It’s like we’re at war,” he grimaced, “and they’re winning.” Karakalpaks are not the only recipients of Karimov’s widely-documented and liberally-dispensed brand of political terror; Uzbeks themselves were mowed down in their hundreds by government forces after an anti-Karimov uprising in the eastern district of Andijan back in 2005. But here in Karakalpakstan there is a different current of fear, stemming primarily from the timeless insecurity of exclusion. Karakalpaks, a people who trace their roots back three millennia to ancient Aral Sea marsh-dwellers, are culturally and linguistically closer to their Kazakh neighbours than they are to Uzbekistan. They have their own language, customs and dress – ‘Karakalpak’ literally means ‘black hat’, a reference to the distinctive traditional headwear which marked this ethnic group out from other surrounding peoples – and they were considered an autonomous socialist republic under the USSR for many years, as well as being briefly part of the Kazakh SSR.
Although today the modern republic of Karakalpakstan is populated by many more Kazakhs and Uzbeks than it is by Karakalpaks themselves, the nation has an identity entirely separate to that of Uzbekistan, the country it is now engulfed by, which helps explain the overwhelming presence of soldiers and policeman on the streets and the undercover intelligence agents in every village. The Uzbek government in Tashkent is desperately twitchy about any hint of independent Karakalpak nationalism.
Just such a movement, known as the Khalk Mapi, broke out in the 1990s and was brutally crushed by Karimov’s troops; many experts think the potential for instability in Karakalpakstan remains high, and that any conflict there would have huge repercussions across the region. A Radio Free Europe dispatch last year claimed a new Karakalpak separatist group was whipping up nationalist sentiment and accusing the Uzbek government of genocide against the Karakalpak people. No one has been able to corroborate the report though, and the story’s main source has since been arrested.
“Karakalpaks see themselves as physically and politically marginalised,” says Reuel Hanks, a professor from Oklahoma University who has studied Karakalpakstan closely. “In a region already beset by civil war, ethnic rivalries and enormous economic and environmental challenges ... the political geography is likely to remain mutable and fragile for some time.” For now Karakalpakstan, which lies to the far west of Uzbekistan, retains the outward shell of an autonomous state and boasts its own flag, parliament and constitution which theoretically allows for a referendum on secession from Uzbekistan at any time.
Like so many gaudy baubles on a plastic tree though, these accessories are nothing but political gimmicks; Karakalpak leaders are hand-picked by Karimov, the Uzbek army is everywhere and no one in Tashkent is in any mood to contemplate independence for their troublesome little brother. Since Stalin divided up the old region of Turkestan into republics based on ‘nationality’, each territory has worked tirelessly to construct a narrative of cultural and political unity in an effort to legitimise their claims to a ‘separate space’ from their neighbours, a process which accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of independent nation states in the region.
Breakaway enclaves pose a mortal threat to that fragile legitimacy; one doesn’t have to look far in the shadows of the former USSR – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya – to find populations who have rejected the nation-state borders imposed upon them from above. Karimov, a 71 year old dictator who ruled Uzbekistan under the Soviets before improbably restyling himself as an anti-Russian freedom fighter as the USSR cracked apart, doesn’t want a repeat performance in his own backyard. As the city’s low-rise suburbs gave way to fields, I asked Sulton about opposition activists. “There aren’t any,” he replied flatly, staring out the window. “No demonstrations, no protests, no critical songs or books. Nothing.”
The story of Karakalpakstan starts and ends in cotton, with greed, forced labour and disaster stitched in between. We sped past mountains of ‘white gold’ piling up in the district collection points, where farmers drop off cotton by the tonne in accordance with government directives. Chances are that most of the cotton in your wardrobe originated here; Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest cotton exporter and unlike its neighbours, the industry remains almost entirely in the hands of the state. The price paid to growers is fixed each year by ministers – 80 Uzbek som per kilo in 2009, far below what the flossy thread fetches in the open market across the border in Kazakhstan – and in Karakalpakstan the annual increases have failed to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living. Unemployment is rampant, and poverty – often delicately shrouded behind the paper employment offered by collective farms, many of which lie dormant for much of the year – is increasingly pervasive.
The fields were bleached-brown and dull, except when sprinkled with a riot of moving colour – the bright clothing of schoolchildren who, like their peers across Uzbekistan, spend every day of every Autumn picking the cotton harvest. NGOs estimate that 50% of Uzbek’s cotton exports are the fruit of child labour, and there is nothing voluntary about the work; for two or three months a year the education system – from schools to universities – shuts down en masse as teachers lead their young charges out into the crops. Everyone from doctors to civil servants also follows suit; on one occasion when I went to interview the director of a prestigious Karakalpak medical institute, I was informed by the secretary that she was out supervising the cotton harvest.
We stopped at one field and struck up a conversation with the students. They had been working eight hour days for fifty days now, but were happy; the harvest was a great opportunity to escape the classroom and play and flirt in the countryside. It took a while for the chinks to appear. I asked Sabina, a 16 year old girl, about her plans for the future and a stream of excited, broken English bubbled out as she detailed her dream of being a transport dispatcher. Her teacher, standing behind her, shook his head sadly. “There’ll be no job available when she graduates,” he told me when she was out of earshot. “Not for her, not for anyone.” I ask the pickers whether they know of anyone leaving Karakalpakstan because of the lack of work and the dire state of the economy. Every single one of them nodded, including Sabina – her father had emigrated to Kazakhstan earlier this year. The group broke up as someone spotted a security officer from the local government ‘hokkim’ swing down the dirt track towards us. Sulton and I beat a hasty retreat.
Cotton lies at the heart of the only thing ever to have thrust a reluctant Karakalpakstan on to the global map – the awesome and terrible sight of one of the world’s biggest inland bodies of water quite literally disappearing into thin air. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Aral Sea was Central Asia’s baby blue pride; 42,000 square miles of saline waves, abundant fish and island resorts which attracted Russia’s rich and beautiful for their summer holidaying. There were also cotton fields fanning out from its shoreline, and these rolling acres of profit were to be the sea’s downfall. In the 1940s work begun on irrigation canals that diverted water from the sea’s two main tributaries – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers – into the fields, boosting the harvest and leaving less and less water every year arriving in the Aral basin.
By the 1960s the Aral was losing up to 60 cubic kilometres of water annually; by the 1980s, the level of the sea was dropping almost 10cm a month. Geologists and environmentalists flocked to witness and condemn the decay, but the architects of this grotesque transformation were unmoved. “Nature’s error” was how one Soviet engineer dismissed the sea; the hubris of those who thought they could rewire an ecosystem would come back to haunt the dead sea’s victims later. Today the sea has shrunk to a mere 10% of its original size, leaving in its wake the world’s most recently-formed desert, from which 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand are whipped up by the wind each day and dumped over Karakalpakstan and other nearby regions. Lung-related diseases in the republic are three times higher than the Uzbek average; the fishing industry, Karakalpakstan’s financial lifeblood, has collapsed.
The Aral Sea disaster didn’t just plunge Karakalpakstan into turmoil. It also reshaped how Karakalpaks view themselves in a series of subtle ways. The republic’s Kazakh population has returned to their ethnic homeland in droves, attracted by a Kazakh government-sponsored ‘oralman’ programme encouraging the immigration of its diaspora. In some villages I visited, entire Kazakh-language schools had simply shut down because every pupil had left. The Aral also stretches across the border up into Kazakhstan, and in its northern stretches a series of new dam projects are salvaging the sea there, fuelling further optimism in what is already a relatively vibrant economy. It is no coincidence that the wholesale movement of a population from one side of this once-mighty lake to the other mirrors nature’s contrasting fortunes; almost any Kazakhs who can leave are doing so, however wrenching the transition may be. “At my age, it’s hard to adapt to a new climate,” I was told by one Karakalpak-born Kazakh farmer whose two younger brothers had already left for Kazakhstan and who was close to following in their footsteps. “I’m proud to be a Karakalpak; this is my land, and who wants to change their motherland? But there are no jobs. It’s inevitable.”
Karakalpak Kazakhs who touch down one morning in the Kazakh capital of Almaty with their suitcases in tow are expected to rapidly discard one identity like an old jumper and pull on a new one. The oralman programme’s narrative is that these new arrivals are reconnecting with a long-severed historical attachment with the Kazakh nation, even though many of them, just like their forefathers, will have never seen Kazakhstan before in their lives. Karakalpakstan’s environmental mutation hasn’t just remodelled the ground; it’s remoulded people’s minds and recalibrated their histories. In this region, said travel writers Matthew and Macleod, “only the past is as unpredictable as the future.”
For ethnic Karakalpaks, the choices are even harder. Many have moved to Uzbekistan and stayed there; others use fixers like Ziyo, the people smuggler, to alter the ethnicity printed on their passports so that they too can appear Kazakh and escape across the border. When they make it to Almaty they often find that communal resentments are rife between the Kazakh-born Kazakhs and the first-generation immigrants; as ‘fake’ immigrants the ethnic Karakalpaks go straight to the bottom of the social pile, suddenly looked down upon by those who, back in Karakalpakstan, they used to call neighbours. Those left behind in Karakalpakstan are struggling to come to terms with this transformation in Karakalpak society; are those that have fled traitors or trailblazers, and should they be condemned or emulated? Some claim the route to economic empowerment lies with closer integration with Uzbekistan; others believe that this will lead to the death of Karakalpakstan as a nation and instead advocate a fight for more autonomy.
No matter what their stance though, everyone, everywhere feels a sense of communal identity being whittled away. It’s being spirited across borders, and it’s being spirited behind closed doors. Sulton tells me of his brother, the former manager of a successful aviation dealership until the government confiscated it from him in the mid-90s. He now scrapes together a living in his back garden putting together go-karts from old motorbike parts and selling them on to the thrill-seeking Kazakh nouveau riche; being hidden from view is a prized asset in a place where the sinewy tendons of authority tend to bring more harm than good to those they touch. And it’s being spirited into graves, the fate of those who lose the long struggle against lung cancer and tuberculosis.
For many, all these tensions simply resolve themselves in a vaguely articulated sense of bitterness at the status quo, where life carries on as best it can and anger shines through only in the odd nervous joke and a rare flash of emotion. That night I slept in a local village at the home of a Karakalpak man in his mid 60s, named Farhod. As we delved into his old black and white photo albums stuffed with stiffly formal poses of marriage and war, the television flickered in the background. “You know what the Russians say,” whispered Farhod to me conspiratorially as he poured out another cup of green tea. “‘If you want to see heaven, watch Uzbek TV; if you want to see hell, go to Tashkent.’” The words were met by everyone in the room with uproarious laughter that soon gave way to quiet nodding.
“Did you hear the one about the Russian, the Kazakh and the Kyrgyz man all arguing over who would cry the most if a plane crashed whilst all three of their presidents were on board?” grinned Ziyo, who’d joined us for dinner. “’I’d shed the most tears,’ insisted the Russian. ‘No, no, I’d be far sadder than you,’ countered the Kazakh. ‘Rubbish, such a loss would make me inconsolable,’ replied the Kyrgyz. In the end they turned to a Karakalpak friend who had been sitting quietly in the corner. ‘You’re all wrong,’ he said. ‘I’d cry the most, because President Karimov wasn’t on board.’”
The following afternoon Farhod and Ziyo took me out hunting. Biblically-proportioned swarms of mosquitoes tracked us through the strange and fluffy landscape, the stillness of which was broken every few minutes by a volley of shotgun cartridges and the dull thud of a pheasant hitting the ground. Both men looked jovial in their army fatigues; they shared a final cigarette together on the bonnet of Farhod’s car as bloodstains seeped out of Ziyo’s canvas bag and the sun began to drop achingly slowly across a shimmering-wheat horizon. On our way back we passed mile upon mile of desert scrubland, formerly fertile ground now pockmarked with salty encrustations, a by-product of the Aral’s disappearing act.
Then out of nowhere a small shock of golden yellow appeared; trees so vivid by the roadside that each leaf seemed to have its own source of evening twilight. Apart from us, the road was completely deserted. Farhod pulled over the car and got out to admire the scene, tucking his red shirt carefully into his trousers and pulling on his deerstalker hat. After a few minutes fingering the leaves silently he suddenly exploded into gleeful shouts. “Svobda, svobda!” he yelled in Russian, dancing across the tarmac. “This is beauty! This is freedom!”
Eldor was late. I’d been standing at a level crossing on the outskirts of Nukus for an hour in the mid-morning heat when he finally showed, just as I was staring up at one of President Karimov’s ubiquitous propaganda signs tacked onto the signal post. ‘Uzbekistan has a wonderful future’ it read in big stencilled letters. It was partly obscured by a montage of Western Union money transfer adverts, all aimed at those receiving money from relatives long-departed from the country.“What’s up my niggers?” boomed an American accent behind me, delivering the first of many ‘Bachelor Party 2’ quotes that would clatter discordantly over my ears for the rest of the day.
Eldor was part of a small but conspicuous breed of Karakalpaks who spoke English, were well connected and who generally landed plumb government contracts which cushioned them from the rest of the republic’s economic woes. They hung out in places like Merlion, the city’s plushest eatery. It had dark red walls and fake marble tabletops and a Sinatra lookalike in the corner who crooned listlessly along to an Uzbek pop track. It’s where I first met Eldor and his friends. They all got their jobs through their fathers – a position in one of the Karakalpak ministries, a management role at a local asphalt company, a distributor for an Uzbek brewery – and they all issued blandly formulaic responses to my questions about Karakalpakstan’s predicament. The Aral Sea issue is bad, but the water might come back. Political problems exist, but Uzbekistan’s democracy is young and progressing steadily.
Some of this optimism was genuine – one suit-clad 22 year old mentioned the return of several Karakalpak Kazakh émigrés who couldn’t find jobs across the border, and also highlighted the opening of a new canning factory in Qazaqdarya, suggesting an industry that had been defunct for decades might now be struggling back to life. But for the most part these answers floated straight out of a bubble of elite contentment, mouthed by those who elected only to see the positives. With no free media in Karakalpakstan or Uzbekistan, ignorance and apathy is an easy choice for the rich. Mid-conversation the restaurant lights suddenly disappeared and without warning lasers fired out from all sides of the room. Everyone abandoned their meals wordlessly and hit the dance-floor for a surreal half hour of pulsing, heaving energy. Then the lights came back up, the Sinatra lookalike resumed his station, and each reveller returned to their seat as if nothing had happened. “Why are they complaining?” asked a panting Eldor, in response to my pre-dance question about critics of the government. “If they worked a bit harder they would move upwards.”
Now Eldor and I were speeding weightlessly across Karakalpakstan’s more northerly countryside on the way to pay a visit to one of these critics, his pasha-disco throbbing car a little balloon of modernity in this endlessly antiquated landscape. Our destination was one of the villages in the Qazaqdarya region, which bordered on to the old shores of the Aral Sea. The route took us across the dilapidated Amu Darya, where a bridge had fallen in. We joined the queue for a tiny floating pontoon, already laden with a jeep, a microbus and 25 chatty revellers on their way to a wedding; the men in dark suits, the women all kitted out in the bright red and gold of traditional Karakalpak marriage-wear. This river was once the legendary Oxus, a passage so vast and fearsome that it took Alexander the Great’s army five days to cross it. The pontoon, pulled along by a grizzled man clutching a rope, made the same trip in about ten minutes; today the river snakes through a channel half the size of the valley carved out for it.
Nazar was waiting for us in his village, which lay on the banks of a green canal in the middle of nowhere. It was a simple, graceful little place, full of reed and stick fences, grazing lambs and goats, and home-made barges floating softly back and forth across the water. It was also in the grip of gangsters, according to Nazar; he pointed some of them out to us as he led us to his family home. They were young, well-built men with caps drawn low over their faces, and were busy chatting to a couple of local government security agents who were known for extorting money from villagers. Later one of these agents drunkenly staggered by as I took a stroll through the fields, paying me no heed but bellowing into a mobile phone: “I’ll kill you mother-fucker, I’ll find you and kill you.” A girlfriend tottered along behind, giggling. Further on by the canal, an old man in a farmer’s cap stormed past. “Where are you, bitch?” he yelled, reeking of booze.
Nazar is 38 and works as a public schoolteacher. When we met he was already engaged in numerous battles with his superiors over the non-payment of wages; he theoretically earns $120 a month, on which it’s a challenge to support his wife and their four children, but the money often doesn’t come through at all. His latest bone of contention was the method by which teachers like him are paid. “They want to give us plastic cards and have us withdraw our salaries from ATMs,” he snorted as he laid out a plastic table cloth and served us bread and cheese. “How will that work? There’s only one ATM in the whole of Karakalpakstan, and it’s broken!” Nazar’s parents, both ethnic Karakalpaks, left long ago for Kazakhstan, and Nazar is worried his children will one day do the same. “I’ll never leave, I’m a patriot – those that abandon their motherland are just second-class citizens,” he said, his face suddenly brewing into a storm. He sighed, and his features mellowed: “But then again I can understand it. The kids in my school; their parents aren’t paid on time, if it all, and they can’t afford vitamins. I mean, we’ve had an ecological catastrophe here, the vegetables are bad and the water’s bad and people need vitamins. But the kids don’t get them. They get anaemia and kidney failure instead.”
For the past few years, Nazar has been quietly agitating at work for better rights for teachers; others at the school are usually aghast at his effrontery. I’m not surprised – Nazar was one of the very few people I ever met in Karakalpakstan who seemed willing to risk a degree of open hostility to the authorities. “They’re just dead, like robots,” he said of his colleagues. “People are too afraid to talk about politics.” His experiences in the classroom have convinced Nazar that Karakalpakstan must break free of Uzbekistan to develop and prosper, and he unfolded a huge map of Central Asia to draw a finger down the old borders of the republic, which reach as far as the towns of Zarafshon and Nurota in the east. “These places belong to us and have been stolen. Our country is Karakalpakstan and our enemy is Tashkent.” He spoke slowly and deliberately in Karakalpak, refusing to use Uzbek words and keeping his eyes locked on mine throughout. “I saw Ossetia rise up from nowhere and demand independence, now we must do the same. Many, many people here share these thoughts, yet nobody can say anything. But I’m saying something. I tell my pupils every day, ‘our time is coming’. I’m not scared because I’m speaking the truth. We’re fighting for our freedom.”
Professor Hanks believes it to be highly significant that anybody in Karakalpakstan is prepared to speak like this to foreigners, even under a veil of anonymity. “With the security structure in place there, for one active dissident to be able to express these sentiments you need a much wider passive group around him who sympathise with what he’s saying to the extent that they won’t inform on him to the police,” he argues. “It means people are losing their fear, and that’s remarkable.”
Perversely, the very poverty that could help motivate a rebellion against Uzbek rule is also a limiting factor against it; people are too interested in basic sustenance to consider clashing with their political masters. Nazar took us out to visit the grave of Alako’z, a 19th century Karakalpak tribal leader who united his people and defied the nearby Khan of Khiva (a town which lies within modern-day Uzbekistan) by establishing an independent khanate on the banks of the Amu Darya. He was eventually betrayed by some of his compatriots and retreated to a coastal fort on the Aral Sea, which held out against the besieging Uzbeks for three months before falling. Alako’z was buried where he was killed, and where the waves could lap at his grave. A hundred and fifty years later, the tomb is surrounded by 70 miles of dry earth. An elderly shepherd decked out in the flamboyantly striped gown of a traditional Uzbek peasant wandered over to us as we stood over the grave, and said that he too wanted to be buried under the old seabed. “One day maybe the sea will come back and wash over me,” he smiled.
His wish is unlikely to be realised. The sea will not return to these parts; in fact globally the trend is heading in the opposite direction, with regions as diverse as California, north-western India and the Nile Delta all facing the prospect of severe water shortages over the next half-century. In some places water tables are falling due to over-extraction; elsewhere upstream agricultural demands have caused domestic water deficits. The result is that one third of the arable land on the planet is being destroyed, and the problem is only set to deepen; currently the growth in the use of water stands at double that of world population growth. In the Middle East, water is cited by some analysts as the next trigger for geopolitical conflict; globally, the United Nations has identified 300 potential flashpoints over water insecurity. “Water,” claimed Mikhail Gorbachev, “like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people.” It is the competitive resource of our generation.
If Karakalpakstan is anything to go by, the insecurity unleashed by environmental catastrophes like the Aral Sea produce centrifugal reactions capable of recalibrating the identities and loyalties of entire populations. “Water security is the elephant in the room in Central Asia”, says Professor Hanks. Around Karakalpakstan the Aral Sea is only one of a series of environmental crises for which increasingly brazen solutions are being found; in nearby Turkmenistan the government has started work on a $20 billion ‘golden lake’ that scientists believe is completely unworkable. “All the countries know that water is a festering issue which at some point or another is going to come to a head, but as a region none of them have come together and formulated a unified policy,” adds Hanks. “Water has been used in the past as a political weapon, and it will be used so again.”
On my last day in Karakalpakstan I drove out to the shores of what’s left of the Aral Sea. My guide, Viktor, was from Moynaq, a once bustling port town that now resembles a ghost strip; empty tower blocks bordered by clouds of dust and rusting tractors, an unused stadium, a single child on a bicycle freewheeling in the dawn mist. Viktor, an ethnically Russian Karakalpak, lived in a disorientating time warp on what was formerly the Aral coastline; his garden was scattered with relics of a lost era – a bust of Lenin the size of a satellite dish, a stagnant swimming pool dreadlocked with vines and a rusting anchor, the tailfin of an aeroplane currently pressed into service as a weather vane. Behind a garage blaring loud Russian rock was a scrap-yard guarded by gnashing dogs and a corroding bathtub; a jumble of tank parts and armoured personnel carriers was just visible through the doorway. Nailed to the adjacent wall into was a 1988 calendar of topless Japanese girls, along with several dead birds of prey.
Viktor himself was age-lined and quiet; his gnarled hands clutched a ten-inch machete which he was employing to make some delicate alterations to the 4x4 which would carry us across the former seabed. “The government was just throwing all this stuff away after independence,” he said gruffly in response to my inquiring glances. “I thought I’d collect it.” We stole out of town as the sun began peeking up through the sand, and Viktor told me about his late father, a fisherman who wanted his son to follow in the family trade. By the time Viktor grew up there was no water left to fish in, so he became a pilot instead. He talked of this with no nostalgia; indeed the only time he looked mildly wistful is when he pointed across to the many gas and oil installations craning across the landscape before us. Mineral wealth has been discovered under the Aral’s old belly; where the sea has retreated, Russian and Chinese companies have advanced, drilling into the ground and piping its riches straight out of Karakalpakstan and towards Tashkent. “We should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia,” I remembered Nazar telling me with clenched fists, back in Qazaqdarya. “The Uzbek government doesn’t give us a cent.”
As we approached the cliffs overlooking the Aral’s modern shoreline, the landscape changed; the machinery was far behind us now, leaving just dead wood which vaporised underfoot and crunchy soil that split into cakes around it. Then, suddenly, the sea itself appeared below, abutted by a hypnagogic moonscape of grey dunes and smashed rock. It looked like a half-filled basin, with the water –as baby-blue as ever – curving slenderly round the bowl. The wind was bitterly cold and there were no gulls, ice-cream trills or funfair jingles; in fact, there were no other humans or signs of life for what seemed like hundreds of miles. But the surf still lapped gently at the sand, a coy and crippled reminder of what once had been. In the distance I could almost make out the former island of Vozrozhdeniya, or ‘Resurrection’, the site of an abandoned Soviet bio-weapons facility. Down on the seashore itself specks of honeycomb foam tore off the waves in bunches before rolling and fluttering and chasing each other towards the cliffs. They looked like polystyrene balls tipped from packing box. Beneath them lay the strangest terrain I have ever stepped over; neither sand, mud nor salt-crystals, but some chemically-mutated mashup of all three. This was nature gone wrong.
On the way back we passed one of the Aral’s ship graveyards, a cemetery for old fishing boats unwittingly liberated from their ocean. Some contractors from Uzbekistan had been hauling the maritime corpses onto the back of trucks and were just finishing up for the day; the metal will eventually be sent to the Tashkent ironworks by rail. I asked one of the men what all this scrap would be used for, and he shrugged. “New ships, I guess, for a new Uzbekistan.” Behind us the world’s youngest desert stretched to the horizon. “The sea is coming back, you know,” he added. “It has to. If it doesn’t, there’ll be trouble.”
To protect anonymity, some names and details have been changed.