Death and re-birth of a lake: How water came back to the dry Aral Sea

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Death and re-birth of a lake: How water came back to the dry Aral Sea

The Aral Sea was once the fourth biggest lake in the world. People thought it had disappeared forever, an environmental disaster. But something is changing now.

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Villager Zhanabek Ismagambetov, born in 1973, cuts a fish as his niece Dariga watches in Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, where about 250 people live, and Karateren, where 150 people live, used to be full of fishermen. But then the lake dried up and the water was too far away. Now it is back in Karateren. © REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

The Aral Sea was the fourth biggest lake in the world. Now it has probably gone forever and this has caused decades of environmental disaster.

But a project to save the northern part appears looks successful. Commercial fishing is possible again now in the Kazakh towns and villages near there.

The Aral was nearly destroyed because of the Soviet Union’s plan to produce more cotton by diverting two rivers that flow into the lake, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, to water the desert.

They started to build the irrigation facilities on the rivers in the 1940s. In the 1960s the coast line was getting about three metres a year further away, said 84-year-old Sagnai Zhurimbetov, who had worked as a fisherman on the Aral for 56 years. He now lives in the town that was a port.

‘The water has gone, so we started doing whatever we could (to survive),’ Zhurimbetov said. ‘Teams of fishermen travelled across Kazakhstan, to other lakes.’

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Former fisherman Sagnai Zhurimbetov, 84, holds his 10-month-old great-grandson Ykhlas at his home in the old sea town of Aral, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Other people started raising animals: there are camels now on the land that was the seabed near Karateren village. Other people have left the area. Most of the soil has a hard layer of white salt on top. This makes it difficult to farm.

In the 1990s, the Soviet Union fell apart, so the Aral separated into several smaller areas of water. Kazakhstan tried to save the north part which is completely inside the country. It shares the other areas with Uzbekistan.

The idea was simple – build a dam to separate the ‘North Aral Sea’ from the area of very little water in the south. This would mean more water would flow from Syr Darya.

They completed the dam in 2005. In the next ten years, they caught five times more fish in the Kyzylorda region.

The coast line is now 20-25 kilometres away – the distance changes with the seasons.

People from some villages can now walk to the lake again. And the water is now much less salty, so more different fish can live there.

Now, fishermen in Karateren – where the population is slowly growing – mostly catch bream, carp and pikeperch, and they often export the pikeperch to other countries.

Because of the return of commercial fishing, there are new jobs sorting and freezing fish. Some families get money by importing and selling motorboats.

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A local resident Galymzhan works at a fish sorting factory in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. 1000 people live in Bogen – it used to be a fishermen's village on the seashore. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

The boats that the fishermen on the Aral use now to check their nets are much smaller than the big old broken boats that now lie around in the seabed. People take metal from them to use for other things.

‘The small Aral is not a real sea,’ says Zhurimbetov. ‘The old one used to have waves 7 metres high.’

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A boat on the shore of the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. Akespe, where about 250 people live, and Karateren, where about 150 live, used to be full of mainly fishermen until the water left– but it is now back in Karateren. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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An old ship next to a salty part of the Aral Sea coast near the village of Akespe, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Akkenzhe Abdiyeva plays dombra at dinner at home in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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A girl looking after cows in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. About 1000 people live in Bogen. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Camels next to an old fuel station in the village Zhalanash, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. About 700 people live there. A bay near there with lots of old fishing boats became a tourist attraction – they call it the ‘the ship graveyard’. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Boldai Zhaksylykova (second right) and her family pray after dinner at home in the village of Bogen, south-western Kazakhstan, on 17 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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A fisherman pours water out of his boat on the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017, where the water has now come back. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Kenzhibek and his son Ernur next to their camels in the village of Zhalanash, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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A sign with a ship and a village name at sunset outside the village Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Fishermen in a truck going to collect fish from a boat in shallow water by the Aral Sea, outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Fishermen on a boat on the Aral Sea outside the village of Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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An old ship between the coast of the Aral Sea and sand dunes near the village of Akespe, south-western Kazakhstan, on 16 April 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

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Erali Serimbetov, born in 1961, in front of his house with sand dunes in Karateren, south-western Kazakhstan, on 15 April 2017. The sea is now back here. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2017/06/14/aral-sea-fish-is-back/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).