Where water once stood is now an arid, dry, open landscape in western Kazakhstan punctuated with low-lying shrubs. Only when you finally reach the sea can you feel the coolness and breathe deeply.
The road leading to the Little Aral Sea is mostly desert terrain.
The fisherman are either napping or chatting about the intricacies of rural life as they rest after their morning catch. They are all residents of the tiny settlement of Shomishkol.
Abilbay Abildaev, a 51-year-old father of 10 -- nine daughters and one son -- says he was able to provide for them thanks to fishing.
'Fishing is the trade of my ancestors. God willing, I won't give up this business either. It's difficult for a man over 50 to find another job,' Abildaev said, looking at the ripple of the waters above the blue sea as it moves toward the shore.
Abildaev's son did not want to become a fisherman, and his father understands. In recent years, water levels have dropped as the levels of salinity has increased. As a result, fish stocks are falling, much like the income of fishermen.
'When the water from the river stopped flowing into the sea, there were noticeably fewer fish. Our earnings dropped by 50-70 percent. The situation now is not very good. The sea needs water. When there is more water, the catch will increase. But now the situation is such that we can't justify the costs [of going out], and we instead linger in the parking lot. This spring, there were no fish at all,' Abildaev says.
With fish stocks depleted, Kazakh fishermen struggle to break even.
Many fishermen live nearby for 10-15 days at a time, bringing with them fishing equipment, fuel for their boats, and food. Lately, they've had to rely on loans to finance their costs. Only when there is a catch can they pay off their debts and have something left over for their families.
On a good day, a fisherman can haul in 20-30 kilograms of fish. The catch is divided equally between the two fishermen who work each boat. Afterward, the fresh fish are sold and taken to a fish factory.
Demand Sets The Price
'I've been fishing since the construction of the [Dike Kokaral Dam] in 2005. At first, because the seawater was salty, all of the fish were found at the mouth of the river where we fished. As the volume of water increased there were more fish. In the last two to three years, the sea stopped receiving the river's water, and there were no fish again. Previously, fishermen could catch 100 kilograms of fish a day; now they are happy with 20-30 kilograms. Sometimes we come back empty-handed,' said another fisherman, Mukangazy Ibaev.
In the afternoon, the fishermen began to prepare for the next trip. They load the nets onto an old motorcycle that will be driven close to the water's edge. Getting to the water with the nets is a challenge in and of itself. Over the course of the past year, the sea has moved away from the coast by about 1 1/2 kilometers.
Ibaev's assistant, Askhat, loads a large net onto the boat. According to fishing tradition, they shout 'Maylansyn!' or 'Big catch!' as the fishermen answer loudly, 'Let it be so!'
After launching the boat, the fishermen have to push it another 500-600 meters to get past the shallow water.
Fishermen must walk their boats nearly two kilometers to get past the shallow water.
'We walked about 1 1/2 to two kilometers from the shore. But we are still dragging the propeller. It's too shallow here; there's only half a meter of water. We'll drop the nets somewhere in the 20-30 kilometer range. Then we will return in the evening. During this time, we will burn 50 liters of fuel with our little motor. There are times when we return empty-handed and cannot reimburse the cost of fuel,' Ibaev said.
Where Livelihoods Are Closely Connected With The Sea
Due to the receding waters, more and more people are leaving fishing to pursue work in other industries -- even leaving for other regions. This is confirmed by the many abandoned boats along the shore.
Fishing boats abandoned along the shores of the Little Aral Sea
'Fishermen work on a rotating basis. In the summer, they must work in construction. These are all their boats. Who will buy these boats? Nobody! Everyone here is a fisherman. On the one hand, they probably don't want to lose hope that the sea will return or that the water will come back. Everything ultimately comes down to water. If water came, the situation would improve. In previous years, there was a lot of water in the dam, and all of the boats were on the water. People worked and lived well,' said Zhetkergen Akmyrzaev, a local businessman in the fishing industry.
For those living nearby, their communities are closely connected with fishing. One of them is the village of Karashalan, located at the mouth of the Syr-Darya River (also known as the Jaxartes), 170 kilometers from the city of Aralsk.
Fishermen prepare their nets.
In Karashalan, there are still houses that locals call 'tokal tam,' built of reeds and without roofs, whose outsides are decorated with clay. 'Fishermen used to live in such houses. Later, when the Kokaral Dam was built and the water flowed into the sea, life in the fishing villages began to improve,' a local resident explained.
A large house in a traditional Kazakh village is an indicator of a good life, and there are many of them in Karashalan. There are also those who built cottages in remote villages. Fishing and cattle breeding have been practiced here for a long time. But the sea is closer to those who live here -- it is the source of livelihoods.
The fishing village of Karashalan, whose residents depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
'No water has flowed into the sea since March. We have 124 families living here and everyone is worried. There are between 70 and 80 fishermen in our village. The well-being of their families is connected with the sea,' said Orazbay Ospanov, a Karashalan resident.
Zaualkhan Ermakhanov, a local ichthyologist, is concerned that the Little Aral Sea could become a dead sea. After all, the salinity has increased as the flow of water from the Syr Darya has decreased. Currently, the amount of salt per liter of seawater is 13 grams. If the salinity of the water exceeds 16 grams, the fish in the sea will die off.
'The native fish of the Aral spawned at an average water salinity of 10 grams. If a liter of seawater contains more than 10 grams of salt, it will be difficult for fish to spawn. Even if they do spawn, the eggs will die. We've been noticing this lately. The salinity of seawater is now 13 grams. That's why the fishermen are worried,' Ermakhanov said.
'Without additional water from the Syr Darya River flowing into the Little Aral Sea, the fish will not survive,' he adds.
Experts warn that if the problem of the Little Aral Sea is not urgently tackled it will cause irreparable damage to nature and humanity.
'Previously, before the construction of the Kokaral Dam, the salinity of the Little Aral was 35 grams. That is, it was the same as the salinity of the ocean. In those difficult years, there were no fish. If urgent measures are not taken at the top, the Little Aral will cease to be a breadwinner,' Ermakhanov said.
According to official data, out of 12 cubic kilometers of water annually entering the Kyzylorda region, only three cubic kilometers flow into the Little Aral Sea. Ermakhanov doubts the water volume indicated in the data actually flows into the sea.
The Little Aral Sea
According to Ermakhanov, Kazakhstan doesn't use its river water efficiently. According to his calculations, the Little Aral Sea will return to its previous state in five to six years if it receives at least six cubic kilometers of water per year.
'On the banks of the Syr Darya is the Koksarai Dam. Its goal is to collect water and send it to the Kyzylorda region in the summer. If you look now, there is water in Koksarai and the fish are thriving. They shouldn't be. The water should be directed downward. The purpose of the Syr Darya watershed isn't intended for fisheries -- it should be directed to the Little Aral Sea. This is one of the ways to save it, Ermakhanov said.
Locator Map: Kishi Aral
Water levels in the Aral Sea have been falling rapidly since the 1960s. This is due to several coastal states irrigating fields from the two main rivers flowing into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, which have led to environmental disasters. Eventually, the sea split into four lakes: the Little Aral (the North Aral Sea), the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea, and the smaller Barsakelmes Lake.
By 2009, the southeastern lake had disappeared and the southwestern lake had retreated to a thin strip at the western edge. Now there is no Aral Sea; it is a dead sea. Experts are concerned that the Little Aral could be next.
'To prevent a catastrophe, it is necessary to increase the volume of water flowing from the river to the sea. The Syr Darya is a river whose water is used by four countries, whose populations and needs for water are increasing every year,' says Ainagul Baimakhanova, director of the Aral Tenizi public association.
'As far as we know, at least 50 percent of the river water entering the Kyzylorda region does not reach the sea. The reason is wastefulness,' she adds. 'Few of us pay enough attention to water, count it, or care about where our water goes. For example, water meters have been installed in Uzbekistan. The waterways are completely monitored. There is no wastefulness allowed there. But this is not the case with us [in Kazakhstan].'
'Due to poor monitoring, less and less water reaches the Little Aral, and the sea becomes shallower every year.'
The first studies related to marine restoration on the Aral Sea began in 1975-1976. During this period, scientific research was carried out on 'restoration of the mouths of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, restoration of the Little Aral Sea.' It was decided to build two dams.
Kazakhstan completed construction of the first of the two dams, Kokaral, in 2005. More than 18 years have passed and the second stage of saving the Aral Sea was proposed by never implemented.
According to experts, over the past five years the sea level has dropped by 2 1/2 meters. Once the volume of the Little Aral was 27 cubic kilometers but now 10 cubic kilometers are gone. That is, more than one-third of the water has disappeared.
On September 15, a meeting of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea was held in Tajikistan. The issue of restoring the disappearing sea and ensuring that rivers continue to flow into it was discussed.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who took part in the meeting, expressed his concern that the Kushtepa canal being built in Afghanistan will lead to a further decrease in the water volume flowing into the Amu Darya. Mirziyoev proposed holding discussions with the Taliban. Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev also drew attention to the condition of the two main rivers flowing into the Aral Sea and the problem of the inefficient use of water.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev speaks at a meeting with the heads of state of Central Asia countries in Dushanbe on September 14.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the creation of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, whose members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The presidents of those countries hold a summit every three years, though there's no mention of how much money has been allocated to the fund or where and how it is spent. Previously, experts agreed that the funds were not enough to solve water shortages and environmental problems in the region.
Botha Sharipova, an associate at the Institute of Water Sciences in Delft, the Netherlands, and a consultant on transboundary water cooperation and diplomacy, says issues of water scarcity in Central Asia are becoming more complex and politicized every year.
'It's a paradox, but in order to avoid disputes and conflicts, government officials did not fully discuss water issues with experts, but only left them on paper at a high political level, further complicating the problem,' Sharipova explains. 'The international fund still cannot agree on the location where the executive committee, its main body, will be located. Therefore, every three to four years a new institution opens in the next country. It is planned to open in Kazakhstan in January next year. And the member states of this fund do not allocate money for the fund's projects. They implement projects only on their own land and say this is their contribution to the fund.'
A hydroelectric complex on the Syr Darya River
Sharipova says people had high hopes for the creation of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, but it's doubtful whether it can function effectively in its current state.
'Although there is support at the highest political level from all states, water experts and other experts do not sit down and discuss how to allocate water effectively,' she says. 'Water and energy can become the only unifying factor in the region if water, energy, environmental, and economic experts from all countries come together to find a solution.
Sharipova says it's unlikely the states will listen to one another and that each is only looking out for its own interests and not those of the region.
'Climate change is causing both floods and droughts. Dialogue and cooperation on water resources require constant negotiations,' she adds.
For the fishermen who depend on the water for their livelihoods, the foot-dragging by politicians may come too late to salvage what's left of the Little Aral Sea.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036