ARAL SEA, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth biggest lake, is most likely gone forever, its death having brought about decades of environmental disaster.
However, a project to salvage its northern part appears to have succeeded as commercial fishing is once again viable in the adjacent Kazakh towns and villages.
The Aral was nearly destroyed as a result of the Soviet Union’s plan to boost cotton production by diverting Syr Darya and Amu Darya, the two rivers feeding it, to irrigate the desert.
Construction of irrigation facilities on the rivers began in the 1940s and by the 1960s the coast line was receding by about three metres a year, said 84-year-old Sagnai Zhurimbetov, who had worked as a fisherman on the Aral for 56 years and now lives in the former port town.
“With the water gone, we started doing whatever we could (to survive),” Zhurimbetov said. “Teams of fishermen travelled across Kazakhstan, to other lakes.”
Others took up animal breeding - camels now graze on what used to be seabed near Karateren village - or left altogether. Throughout the area, most of the soil is covered with a white salty crust, which makes farming a tough job.
By the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Aral had split into several smaller bodies of water and Kazakhstan focused on salvaging its northern part which lies fully within its territory, others being shared with Uzbekistan.
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The idea was simple - build a dam separating the so-called North Aral Sea from the drying-up remains of the southern part and increase water flow from Syr Darya.
The dam was completed in 2005 and over the following decade annual fish catch nearly quintupled in the Kyzylorda region, according to official statistics.
The coast line, which had once receded as much as 100 kilometres from the port town of Aral, is now 20-25 kilometres away as it fluctuates seasonally.
Some villages are once again within walking distance from the lake while the water has become much less salty, allowing a greater diversity of fish to thrive.
Today, fishermen in Karateren - which is slowly growing in population - mostly catch bream, carp and pikeperch, the latter often exported.
The return of commercial fishing has also created jobs at processing facilities where fish is sorted and frozen. Some families earn their living by importing and selling motorboats.
Still, the boats which fishermen on the Aral use today to check their nets are tiny compared with trawlers whose carcasses dot the former seabed, waiting to be picked apart for scrap metal.
“The small Aral is not a real sea,” says Zhurimbetov. “The old one used to have waves 7 metres high.”
Reporting by Shamil Zhumatov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, editing by Pritha Sarkar