The Shrunken Sea

Planet Earth

The Aral Sea Is Disappearing—and With It, the Identity of a Nation

By Jack Shenker


Abandoned fishing ships near the former shoreline of the Aral Sea.
© Photos: Jason Larkin

No one knows exactly how many have left Karakalpakstan, a former Soviet Republic nestled deep within the ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of Central Asia, now under the custody of Uzbekistan. Official figures put it at over 50,000 in the last 10 years alone—roughly 10% of the population—and this figure doesn’t include the people inside smugglers’ vans, the human cargo who pay around $500 each to obtain falsified passports from government officials before slipping out under the radar of the authorities, voyaging towards Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan in search of a new life. But although the numbers remain disputed, the reasons for the exodus are clear. Karakalpakstan is the site of what scientists have called the largest man-made ecological disaster of the 20th century, a climate catastrophe so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten’iz—a sea which fled its shores ...

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