Optimism rises, with water, in bid to revive Aral Sea

Rusted hulks of boats once anchored in the Aral Sea now perch on a sandy graveyard 70 miles from the old shoreline, serving as monuments to one of history's worst man-made environmental catastrophes.

Since the early 1960s, shrinkage of the once huge body of water, which lies on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, completely altered the local climate and the livelihoods of as many as 1 million people.

Most fish were wiped out by the lake's increasing salination and the buildup pesticides seeping down from surrounding cotton fields.

Fishing communities packed up and moved away. Health problems abound that many attribute to wind-borne chemicals. An estimated 75 million tons of salts and toxic dusts have been spread across Central Asia, according to France-based medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.

But a note of promise is on the horizon.

Since 1987, the contraction of the Aral Sea has created two lakes. The larger one grows drier by the year and appears to be beyond saving. But the smaller, northern lake may be salvageable according to local and international experts.

In 1997, the local government in the town of Aralsk took matters into its own hands. It deployed residents and earth-moving equipment to scoop sand from the seabed and build a dike 12 miles long and 85 feet wide between the two lakes.

Protected from the larger, contaminated body, the smaller lake's shoreline began to stretch again toward the ships' cemetery. Birds reappeared, including gulls, swans, and pheasants. Danish scientists analyzed fresh sole from its waters and were amazed to find them clean enough to eat.

"We had assumed that the lake was completely poisoned by the chemicals and pesticides. This means it wasn't," says Altynbek Meldebekov, deputy executive director of the International Aral Sea Rehabilitation Fund, an Almaty-based group linked to the Kazakh government.

The water has gone from a depth of 115 feet to 125 feet - and is still rising. So far local authorities have spent about $535,000 on the dike. They want to build a proper drainage system in the surrounding delta.

The project has attracted the attention of international experts, who are mustering more support. The World Bank is considering funding to make the dike a permanent fixture. The United Nations and European donors have granted more than $1 million dollars to help clean the lakeside area and revive traditional livestock and fishing.

One country that isn't forthcoming is Russia. As the biggest remaining part of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan says it should take responsibility.

"We asked for compensation, but Russia refused in 1996 on the grounds of financial difficulties," says Mr. Meldebekov sadly. "With the current economic crisis there we can forget about any help from them today."

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