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Mission: Find Aral – Telling the story of the Aral Sea

The 3-part documentary series exploring the story of the Aral Sea.

From Saxon Bosworth and Nicolas Bergounioux

What is “Mission: Find Aral”?

We met back in Paris during the summer of 2019, and connected on various topics, including a shared dream of experimenting in the world of filmmaking.

It wasn’t until early 2020 when Saxon was introduced to the story of the Aral Sea and until summer 2020 when we first discussed this subject together.

After speaking about this story with our social circles we quickly reaslied that despite the Aral Sea being considered by former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters”, it is paradoxically almost entirely unknown to the general public.

We became enthralled by this story, and started to stumble upon many questions, and not many answers.

Ultimately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we made the decision to quit our jobs and leave for Uzbekistan to seek answers, and to learn from the perspectives and stories of the locals and experts.

Mission: Find Aral was born. The 3-part documentary series explores the past, present and future of the Aral Sea region in Uzbekistan.

The Aral Sea and its region

Lying between the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea was an endorheic lake fed by two rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

From the 4th world’s largest lake to the youngest desert on the planet, the Aral Sea almost disappeared within 30 years.

Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers (Source)

Nowadays, only 10% of its original surface remains, divided into 3 bodies in the Uzbek part and one body of water, the northern Aral, in Kazakhstan.

Satellite image of 1973 (Source)
Satellite image of 2021 (Source)

The focus of the documentary is set in Karakalpakstan where people and the ecosystem suffered drastically from the disappearance of the sea. Sadly, we didn’t hear much about the situation there. Most of the documentaries on the topic are concentrated on the history and the consequences of the catastrophe and have been made from the Kazakh part.

Since the beginning, Saxon and I both agreed that “Mission: Find Aral” is going beyond the catastrophe of the Aral Sea. It explores the hope and future of the region through the numerous positive initiatives and inspiring people that we have met.

Students of this topic, various experts started to explain to us the complexity of the disaster and the scientific progress to counter the negative consequences. Through the personal stories and feelings of three central people, Anvarbek, Aziz and Yusup, and punctuated by several academicians, decision-makers, locals and members of NGOs, Mission: Find Aral explores what happened to the Aral Sea, how the region is right now and what are the possible perspectives for a sustainable future.

Born in 1947, Anvarbek is living in Muynak which was the former port city on the Uzbek side of the Aral Sea. Naturally, he studied sailing to become captain of a fishing boat and used to navigate on the Aral Sea. After his studies, he had to do conscription in the USSR army for 2 years and when he came back to Muynak, it was dry, the water had withdrawn from a dozen kilometres. The fishing industry was collapsing and he couldn’t sail anymore. He then decided to live from his passion and became a paintings and sculptures artist.

Anvarbek – Credits: Nicolas Bergounioux

Aziz was born in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, during the disappearance of the Aral Sea. He moved and studied at the University of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and became a software engineer, which led him to Seoul in Korea and London to work for one of the top-IT companies. Back in 2012, a researcher studying the consequences of the Aral Sea contacted him to write a chapter about reflecting on growing up in the Aral Sea region. In December 2021, he came back to his motherland. In the documentary, he is reading some parts of his text and adding some updates of the situation now.

Chairman of the first international NGO in Uzbekistan, Yusup dedicated his whole life to the defense and the rights of water resources. His NGO Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya was founded in 1989 during the USSR and works to protect waters and improve health in the region.

Part 1. The Past

The region’s economy was mainly dependent on the fishing and farming industry. During the Soviet era needs, one-sixth of the fish were coming from the Aral Sea, representing 45,000 tons of fish each year.

How this immense body of water, the size of the Republic of Ireland, disappeared in such a short time? Asking questions to specialists, we understood that the combination of several factors led to the desiccation of the sea and to the non-return point.

Cotton: the white gold

Before the 20th century, Uzbekistan, cotton had been harvested in the eastern part of the country but it wasn’t a big industry. 

For an economic opportunity, the USSR became obsessed with cotton, also called white gold. The leaders decided to increase the production and to plant it all over the country, including in dry and desert areas.

To irrigate those gigantic cotton fields, water from the Amu Darya river was diverted into poor irrigation systems. The water mismanagement led to a drastic decrease in water runoff in the Aral Sea.

Karakum canal: the world’s longest irrigation canal

Started in 1954, and completed in 1988, the Karakum canal has a length of 1,375-kilometre, which makes it the world’s longest irrigation canal. It diverts water from the Amu Darya river across the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, the canal was built to develop the cotton industry and to supply Ashgabat with a major source of water.

How did this canal affect the desiccation of the sea?

Nature: the cycle of water

Geologists and archeologists found scientific evidence that some parts of the Aral Sea dried up in the past and were restored by themselves. Natural cycles of the sea level have been occurring for thousands of years.

A paradigm among scientists and politicians raised in the last years, the Aral Sea will not recover by itself as the situation is more critical than before. The Amu Darya inflow of water is not sufficient.

Climate change: the amplification of the catastrophe

Global warming is affecting our planet tremendously and the consequences are becoming more frequent and harsher. Climate change has also played a role in the drying up of the Aral Sea and paradoxically, its disappearance is contributing to the quickening of global warming.

As the sea was evaporating, the size of the desert was rapidly increasing. The entire ecosystem was overturned and the fish disappeared due to the rise salinity in the water.

The emergence of the world’s youngest desert, Aralkum, provoked salt and dust storms which severely affected locals’ health and induced a meteorological change. More than being only an economical resource, the Aral Sea was regulating the climate of the whole region.

The soil has been contaminated by decades of chemicals used for cotton and rice agriculture which flows along the Amu Darya up to the Aral Sea.

Part 2. The Present

The present could be described as one sea two tales. The situation is quite different in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Investments from international organisations and the World Bank, helped the Kazakh government to build the Kokaral dam and therefore to hold water coming from the Syr Darya from being released in the desert. Built in 2005, the dam helped to bring back the small Aral Sea and to slowly re-develop the fishing industry, a crucial economic resource for the region.

On the Uzbek side, the Amu Darya river’s inflow makes it almost impossible to recreate the Aral Sea.

When we arrived in Karakalpakstan, we were very surprised to see how the region is striving.

The former port city, Muynak is expanding and new buildings, schools, an airport and other infrastructures are under construction. The painting depicted by international media as a desertic region, turns out to be different in reality.

Many projects are going on to help local communities, to create job opportunities and to regenerate an ecosystem.

Artemia industry

As water has been lost, rates of water salinity have soared. This change has made the remaining parts of the now segregated Aral Sea in Uzbek territory uninhabitable for fish.

Artemia, otherwise known as brine shrimp, are a form of extremophile crustacean species. They have high commercial value in the aquaculture sector where they are sold as a feed for growing sea food.

They were first identified around the Aral Sea in 1998, but large commercial harvesting received government quotas in 2010. Today, this industry is responsible for the employment of thousands of locals. In the absence of a once 45,000 tonne-a-year fishing industry, the artemia trade has great importance as an economic resource.

What is next for the artemia trade? Can it be a sustainable, long-term source of employment? How do the continued environmental changes impact this?

Artemia camp – Credits: Saxon Bosworth

Creating a forest

In the 2000s, the government with the help of organisations set up a gigantic project: planting trees in the dried seabed of the Aral Sea to mitigate sand storms and to bring back biodiversity. Since then, hectares of Saxual and local plants have grown. Saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) is a highly drought-resistant plant which plays an important role in the establishment of shelter belts and in the fixation of sand dunes as a counter to desertification.

What are the major challenges faced by the planting of an immense forest? What are the first results of this solution?

UNDP has been developing projects in the Aral Sea region since 1993 and is implementing numerous initiatives involving local communities. We visited a beekeeping farm where locals are trained to set up installations, learn the expertise and generate income from it.

There is a great dynamic both at a grass-root and national levels. In May 2021, the Uzbek government declares the Aral Sea region, a zone of environmental innovations and technologies, inviting scientists and organisations to proceed to research.

Article written on our partner’s website, Conservation Optimism

Understanding that a positive movement has been implemented in the region, we wanted to imagine what are the possible perspectives for a sustainable future. Contacting various organisations and projects’ leaders, we were about to find out that innovation and scientific progress are bringing hope for the future.

Part 3. The Future

The catastrophe of the Aral Sea and its consequences represents what could look like many places all around the world. Lake Urmia in Iran, Lake Chad in Central Africa, Lake Poopó in Bolivia, Dead Sea in Middle-East, to quote only those, are facing desiccation and desertification. To counter those disasters, cooperation needs to be empowered and projects implemented in the Aral Sea should be adapted to other parts of the world and vice-versa.

In April 2021, the World Bank in partnership with DK University of Almaty and Global Landscape Forum, created the ‘Global Disruptive Tech Challenge 2021: Restoring Landscapes in the Aral Sea Region. 159 projects have been submitted from 38 countries around the world. We interviewed 8 participant-organisations to better understand what is their project and how it could have a positive impact in the Aral Sea region and on a broader aspect, on places on earth facing environmental catastrophes.

We believe that this story should be heard and awareness should be raised about all those tragic disasters happening in less represented places on earth. We truly believe that those stories should include realistic hope and optimism through the projects and initiatives undertaken to improve the living conditions and the ecosystem.

By Nicolas Bergounioux

My journey started in Basque Country where I am born and grew up. It then continues in different cities in France, punctuated by explorations of some European countries. I decided then to live in Sri Lanka before moving to Paris. I quitted my job recently to pursue my journey in Central Asia where I am working with Saxon on a documentary on the Aral Sea.

Feel free to add me and contact me on Instagram @nicobergou

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