Shifting Seas: The Lived Landscapes of Aral by Grace H. Zhou, Stanford University

“We Are Not Mutants”

Stihia Festival promised to be the Burning Man of Central Asia. On September 14, hundreds of revelers gathered in Moynaq, a once bustling port at the edge of the brimming Aral Sea, but now a dusty town in the Karakalpak autonomous region of northwestern Uzbekistan. Festival goers arrived from cities across Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, Europe, and the US, hoping to rave to techno sets mixed by DJs from Tashkent, Moscow, Tbilisi, and Berlin. Media reports soon followed, describing the spectacle: the desolate landscape of a former sea-bed-turned-desert; electro-music as rain-song to call back the sea or, at least, to raise environmental awareness; the hundreds of curious locals who showed up to observe the festivities.[1]

A former fishing village at dusk (photo by author)

There’s something captivating about the desiccation of the Aral Sea. The ability of the festival to attract international attention taps into a dystopian imagination of environmental catastrophe. Haunting photographs of Aral’s “graveyard of ships” have been circulating on the internet for years, drawing visitors to the site from around the world. These proliferating images of the hulking carcasses of Soviet-era trawlers that now sit stranded and rusted in sand, with no water in sight, provide a striking picture of ecological ruin. Aral seems to portend disastrous futures for places elsewhere threatened by anthropogenic climactic changes. It is a dire representation of life in the Anthropocene era, one that captures both morbid fascination with an ecological doomsday scenario and serves as a warning, a rallying cry to action.

Ghostly inhabitants of an abandoned ship (photo by author)

The dramatic narrative is repeated in each news article and media report: that the Aral sea was once the world’s fourth-largest lake, stretching some 68,000 square kilometers across the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. That over the first half of the 20th century, Russian and Soviet irrigation projects diverted the flows of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, rivers that feed into the sea, to support cotton farming in an otherwise arid region. That 90% of the sea has all but disappeared, leaving an alarming series of effects in its wake—a wind-swept desert that is laced with toxic contaminants from decades of run-offs from chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers used in large-scale farming projects. That the sandy landscape takes to air, carrying “75 million tons of dust and poisonous minerals into the atmosphere each year.”[2] That local populations struggle with abnormally high rates of cancer, tuberculosis, anemia, and other diseases, wrought by ecological hazard and compounded by economic decline after the collapse of the region’s fishing industry.

Visiting a graveyard of ships (photo by author)

This focus on environmental disaster makes catastrophe into a spectacle. “Disaster tourism” around sites like Aral and Chernobyl take on the qualities of voyeurism.[3]  Those who people a place become props on the scene, victims to be pitied. On a cloudless summer day in Zhalanash, a small fishing village on the Kazakh side of the sea, I helped Tolganai wash out her household quduq, a cement well dug into the earth and set deep into a side of the kitchen. As we cleaned, she chatted about her university studies in Almaty, where she was majoring in informatics. She wanted to move to the city, but her husband was attached to village life. What would he do in the city? He was a fisherman.

She suddenly turned the conversation and pointedly asked, “Have you read about Aral on the internet?” Her question sounded more like an accusation. Yes, I told her. “So how does it compare?” There was a hint of bitterness in her voice. Unsure how to respond, I tentatively replied that life seemed better than the media depictions. She seemed to visibly relax. “A lot of tourists are coming here now,” she complained, “They come on motorbikes, on bikes, in Jeeps. Sometimes, they stay in our homes. Some come completely covered up with masks and scarves because they are scared. They bring their own food and don’t eat anything of ours because they are scared. They think that we are mutants.” With this fervent outburst, Tolganai desired to affirm that the people living around the Aral Sea were not mutants. They were not just collateral damage, sacrificial offerings in a moral tale of hubris, or pitiful testaments to environmental management gone wrong.

The Return of Fishing

The experience of those living in Kazakhstan’s Aral region is shaped by the state’s projects of revival. Local populations, especially in the town of Aral, Kazakhstan’s counterpart to Uzbekistan’s Moynaq, have seen a rise in quality of life through infrastructural improvements, provision of utilities and other services, payment of “ecological dividends” for state employees in the region, and increased economic opportunities. 2005 was the watershed year: the $86 million Kokaral dam was completed and President Nursultan Nazarbayev came on an official visit with much fanfare. Since then, water levels have risen in Kazakhstan’s “Small Aral,” the colloquial name for the dammed off North Aral Sea. Salinity has decreased, making the sea once again habitable for certain species of fish. Fishing and fish processing plants have returned to the northern shore, supplementing livelihoods that otherwise rely on herding camels who feed on sparse steppe shrubs.

Waters of the Small Aral (photo by author)

I was surprised during my exploratory research in Aral that other large festivals were organized by performers and employees of Aral’s Dom Kultura (House of Culture) in the span of a month. These festivals did not get the press that Stihia received, but they were well-attended by those who live in the region. Fishermen’s Day, for example, was a two-day affair full of fanfare, that took place on the banks of Lake Kambash, one of the Syr Darya’s delta lakes and a popular local beach. A relic of the Soviet era, Fishermen’s Day is still celebrated with vigor. In addition to pop and rock performances featuring talented local singers and musicians, there was a large yurt camp cooking up feasts for attendees and performers. The region’s fish processing factories set up booths in the vicinity, showcasing an array of frozen fish and other products on offer. Regional dignitaries made speeches about the recovery of the sea and the greatness of fishermen. Dozens of local fishermen were called up onto the stage and awarded with money prizes, computers, TVs, and laptops. There was swimming, boating, drinking, dancing, and feasting.

Fishermen’s Day at Lake Kambash (photo by author)

At the same time, state rhetoric about ecological restoration is a glorification of Kazakh nation-building and modernization. This came into sharp relief in an auditorium at Dom Kultura, where staff proudly screened a film that opened with sweeping scenes of beached ships in the desert, set to eerie, tragic music. As the footage suddenly shifted to drone shots of water gushing out of the Kokaral dam, the Game of Thrones theme song came on, soaring triumphantly. In this portrayal of spectacular rejuvenation, the nation victoriously reverses ecological damage after throwing off the yoke of Soviet rule. The irony is that though the Kokaral dam has successfully increased water levels in Kazakhstan’s North Aral, it has effectively sealed the arid fate of a much larger area of the sea basin in Uzbekistan. The experience of living in the Aral region is more complicated than flattened discourses of disaster and triumphant nationalism allow. Despite improvements in the north Aral region, there continues to be a sense of loss that is evoked through affective and embodied connections between land, sea, memory, and history.

When the Sea Was Everywhere

I visited the shores of the Aral Sea with Aibek, a young fisherman from the village of Zhalanash. I rode in his Soviet-era UAZ along with his two nephews and little niece who had never seen the sea, despite living some ten kilometers from the restored waters. We flew down sandy paths carved into the yellow steppe, until we came to a strand where water lapped the edge of land. We took a boat out onto the sea; the water was choppy and I was surprised by the waves. There was a group of fishermen on the beach, untangling nets. They were Uzbeks, who had come to Aral from the Turkistan region of southern Kazakhstan, over 1000 kilometers away. Fishing here was more lucrative than other opportunities at home, they said. Later, Aibek told me that because they were newcomers, they were only allowed to fish in areas that local fishermen scorned. The area where we found them at work was a choice spot in spring and fall, but less than ideal in the summer, when the migrant fishermen were given access.

The way to Aral’s seashore (photo by author)

Aibek said that the money from fishing was good right now. He owned a motorboat and would hire one or two other men to help him bring in the catch. Then, he would sell each day’s fresh haul to middlemen who supplied fish processing factories that had revitalized on the northern coast. At the same time, he was doing a correspondence degree in agronomy. “You never know if the fish might disappear again,” he said, “It was only ten years ago that the fish started coming back because the water returned. But if the water begins to recede again, then the fish will disappear with it. The future is uncertain.”

It was the golden hour and the steppe glowed around us. Camels, horses, and cows roamed freely, falcons drifted overhead and partridges with speckled wings shimmied out of our way in pairs and threes. Aibek delighted in the birds. “Aren’t they so fat?” he laughed at their rotund bodies. We came to the sand-stranded ships from the back, over a hill where no road existed. Many of the ships that used to sit here had been taken apart for scrap metal and exported to China. We walked around the few remaining vessels, graffitied by visitors. An artist had painted lanky human figures leaning or sitting against the rust-eaten frames, ghostly shapes that populated a deserted place. Aibek tried to imagine the sea here, how deep the waters must have been to harbor these ships that used to sail as far as the Caspian. It exceeded his imagination.

“Ship of the desert” grazing outside Zhalanash village (photo by author)

In the cooling evening, I sat with Aibek’s father on an earthen corner of street in the fading light. The moon was an eerily large golden disc hovering long and low on the horizon. “The sea was here, and here, and here,” he turned, pointing, “The sea was everywhere.” We could hardly see the waterline from where we stood. He pointed to tiny bumps of hills against the skein of sky. They used to be islands. The sea was a glimmering blue ring that encircled and cradled Zhalanash. He was happy about the water’s return—that his son was making a living by fishing. But life was different now, he explained, the village was no longer a kolkhoz, as it once was, where everyone fished and raised livestock communally. “People are fishing again,” he said, “but it is all private. They work for themselves.”

For many, the disappearance of the Aral Sea indexes the loss of a by-gone way of life, one that the water level’s rise cannot restore. The experience of ecological abundance was entangled with affective experiences of collective life, with the sense of a future that was knowable, that everyone participated in building. This belief in a collective future is something that fishermen today, like Aibek, find hard to hold, like slippery silvery bream, squirming out of grasp.

The Historical Sea

“The sea receded,” those in Aral narrated to me, “but now it has come back again as an ekinshi kishik Aral,” a second small Aral. Despite pride in the dam’s restoration of water levels, this northern Small Aral does not do away with a sense of loss. Small Aral is an “iskustvennoye morye,” an artificial sea, people often remarked. It only partially recuperates the historic Aral Sea, which is referred to as an “istoricheskoye morye” in Russian or “kone Aral” in Kazakh. Ancient Aral, the historical sea. This poetic name refers to the way that the sea was seen as a storied place, one that connected the people of a seemingly distant and desolate region to a long history of global affairs. During my time on Aral’s northern shores, I participated in festivities, attended ceremonies, and stood witness to narratives that renegotiated the meaning of the sea in everyday life. I listened to an elderly fisherman speak with emotion and pride about fishing in November 1921, in response to a letter from V. I. Lenin calling for fish to be sent as aid to famine-threatened regions of Russia during the Civil War. In his telling, there was triumph and there was tragedy, nested together.

A preserved museum specimen from the Aral Sea’s glory days (photo by author)

Performative narratives of the “historical sea” seek to suture a rupture wrought by both the Aral Sea’s retreat and the breakup of Soviet life. The sea is thus more than a body of water. Its desiccation and restoration is more than can be indexed by ecological devastation and recovery, more than even the loss and return of livelihoods. For those whose lives are moored to Aral, the sea simultaneously embodies hope and grief, nostalgia and cynicism, histories and futures. And the present is a shifting landscape, full of possibility and uncertainty, in continual making and re-making.




[3] Rob Nixon. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sarah Phillips. 2011. “Chernobyl Forever” in Somatosphere.

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