Photo Essay

The Aral Sea

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As the sun rises on a cold winter morning in Tastubek, a small Kazakh fishing village near the banks of the Aral Sea, the town comes to life. Women milk camels in the cold corrals, children sled on snowbanks, and men pack fishing gear into Russian four-wheel drive trucks. This commotion belies the fact that Tastubek was nearly a ghost town 15 years ago.

The Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, started drying out and shrinking after the Soviets diverted river water away from it for irrigation purposes in the 1950s. By the 1980s, the salinity in the water was so high that freshwater fish could not survive, thus effectively killing off the entire fishing industry in southwestern Kazakhstan. The towns that depended on the income of the fishing industry were doomed, and Tastubek, once a thriving fishing village of 90 houses, only had nine left occupied by the mid-1990's.

But a 2005 dam launched by the World Bank has turned things around in Kazakhstan. Thanks to this project, the water surface of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan has expanded and the freshwater fish catch has grown more than six times since. Once nearly barren, the Aral Sea now hosts 15 different types of fish, according to the fishermen of Tastubek, and income has risen dramatically. The number of occupied houses in Tastubek is back up to 34, with five families moving back in the last year alone.

Kidirbai Ibgragimov was a young boy during the end of the Soviet fishing boom in Tastubek and was one of the few that stayed through the tough times employed as a camel breeder. Now working as a fisherman with his son, he has seen the hopes and fortunes of the town recover. Kidirbai is determined that his son stay close and partake in these new fortunes, saying, "Next year, I am going to build a new house for him. My son will get married and he will continue fishing."

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