Monday, October 13, 2008

Ships in the Desert

(Sorry for the lack of posts. Internet is really spotty here!)

Fifty years ago Moynaq, Uzbekistan was a thriving fishing village. It was situated on a peninsula at the edge of the Aral sea, and every day dozens of fishing boats filled their holds and brought their catch to the local cannery. The fish were cleaned and canned right in town and distributed throughout the Soviet Union.

Then Stalin came up with the idea that Uzbekistan would be a good place to grow cotton. There was only one problem. Uzbekistan is one of the driest places on earth and cotton requires a lot of water. The two main rivers leading to the Aral sea were diverted into thousands of cotton fields and Uzbekistan became the world's second largest cotton producer. And the rivers no longer reached the sea.

The sea began to dry up.

Moynaq is now a living monument to the tremendous damage we can do to our planet. The rusted hulks of ships lay just outside of town in a canal that was dug in a desperate attempt to maintain a path for the water. It wasn't enough. The sea is now hundreds of kilometers away. What is left of the Aral sea has become so concertated that there is nothing alive to fish for anyway. And it continues to shrink. From Moynaq all you can see is a parched desert of dunes and low shrubs. Beetles make their home in piles of tiny shells.

With the sea gone the real environmental disaster has begun. There is nothing to protect the former seabed from erosion, so every year the winds blow millions of tons of salt into the air and onto the neighboring farmland. As the sea shrinks in one direction and ever widening ring of blighted lands spreads in another.

Lara and I hired a car to take us to Moynaq because we felt we had to see it for ourselves. At the edge of town is a sign with a big fish on it. You can go past the old fish canning plant although the locals don't like you to take pictures. I guess it is hard enough to live in a place like this without all the tourists coming to gawk at your misfortune. And you can experience the ships. You can climb in their rusting shells, stand on their decks, and protect yourself from the blazing sun and blowing sand in their shade.

Moqnaq is a terrible place. There is no future for the people. No agriculture, no running water (it is brought in by truck). It is an environmental version of Auschwitz. And like Auschwitz we haven't learned our lessons. We saw what happened in poland and yet we allowed Rwanda, Somalia, and Cambodia. And we've seen what happened in the Aral sea, and yet we allow the destruction of the Amazon, the poisoning of the ocean, and the modification of our very climate.

Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic about our future.

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