An Aral Sea Island Lies Stranded In the Sand

HAZABKAI is a farmer who lives in the desert where the Aral Sea used to be in former Soviet Central Asia.

He lives on what used to be an island that was covered with vegetation - the white-flowered plant that gave it its name.

"White Flower" was an island of fishermen. The first came here in the 1920s, and over the years the population grew until it reached 570 inhabitants.

"Today there are 90 of us, all Muslims," Hazabkai says. "When the sea went away, the government offered us money to move somewhere else. The youngest left.

"There are others, former sailors, who sometimes leave the island for months at a time to work in canning factories in the interior of the country, so they can feed their families.

"Those who remain, including me, were born here and wish to die here. I have seven children; who knows what would await us elsewhere?" Hazabkai asks.

He now uses his farm tractor to carry drinking water for the village from a natural well a few kilometers away. He also carries back fodder for the horses and camels.

"The sea was our life. Since 1976, we have watched it slip quietly away," he says. "I knew that the irrigation canals were diverting water from the rivers for rice and cotton fields. These plants are always thirsty. But no one imagined that the sea would go away entirely. The boats lay right where they were. Now they are rotting in the sun.

"Who is responsible for this?" Hazabkai asks. "Without a doubt, we are. Our previous way of life is. God has taken vengeance on us, He has punished us, and the sea has gone away. We must live better.

"Some of the old people say that the sea went away before, 1,000 years ago, but that it came back. I know that it is not coming back. I only hope that our life will return to what it was.

"Last year we got satellite television, thanks to [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. Our food arrives from Aralsk by truck; the mail is delivered twice a week." Of the area itself, he says "We have a shop, a school, and the young people go for car rides.

"And there is a source of hot water on the island. It appeared when the sea dried up. Some scientists came to analyze it and found it was high in nitrates. They say it cures skin and blood diseases and back problems.

"So we installed a shower and a sauna.... Three hundred people have already come from all over the region. And next year, a thermal treatment center and hotel will be built. Life will get back on track," Hazabkai says.

But the community worries about what would happen if the hot spring dries up. "The water from the irrigation canals nearby is far too polluted by pesticides. So we are digging everywhere for other sources and wells."

"For us, water is life and joy, not simply an ecological problem," Hazabkai says.

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