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Astana, April 27: Aral Sea, one of the world’s most shocking environmental disasters of all times, despite being so intensely altered, shows some signs of recovery, Pat Walters of National Geographic magazine reported. The story, published on April 2, 2010 is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis and says with help from the Kazakh government, the World Bank, and scientists, the Aral’s northern part has started to make a recovery. Fish, sea birds and reptiles have begun to repopulate the Aral Sea and surrounding area.

Below are excerpts from Pat Walter’s article. (For the full text click here).

“Once a colossal geographic feature—at 26,000 square miles, it was the fourth largest inland water body on earth in terms of surface area — the Aral shrank to hold just one-tenth of its original volume, becoming a tragic shadow of itself. The fishery died in the 1980s, after the Soviet government drained the sea to feed thirsty cotton fields planted in the inhospitable landscape surrounding it. As less freshwater entered from the rivers, the Aral, which had always been brackish, became increasingly salty. All 24 species of native fish vanished, and almost overnight, the fishing industry collapsed. The most skilled fishermen abandoned their ships on sandbars as the Soviet government transferred them to other fisheries on the Caspian and Baltic seas.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, glimmers of hope appeared for the North Aral’s recovery. The mayor of the town of Aralsk followed scientists’ advice and built a makeshift dam, isolating it from the South Aral and retaining the entirety of the Syr Darya’s meager discharge.

By 2005 the World Bank and the government of Kazakhstan had designed and built a permanent eight-mile dam intended to raise the North Aral by about 13 feet, several feet shy of the level needed to refill Aralsk’s harbor, but deep enough to drop salinity and allow native fish to repopulate the sea. The $85 million project also improved irrigation structures upriver from the Aral. “That dam,” says Joop Stoutjesdijk, the World Bank officer assigned to the Aral region, “showed us that something could be done.”

The North Aral grew by 20 percent, and today salinity is at 14 grams per liter, not far from 1960 levels. Soon native plants, stifled for years by the saltwater, began to sprout, and migrating birds like pelicans, flamingos, and ducks again began to visit the Aral.  Nowadays, “It’s a paradise for birds,” says Russian Academy of Sciences zoologist Nick Aladin, who has been studying the Aral since the 1970s. “It’s a place for pleasure, and it’s an enormous victory.”

Most importantly, though, freshwater fish like pike, perch and carp, which took refuge in the Syr Darya, have returned to the Aral, and in 2008 fishermen caught roughly 1,500 tons (1,360 metric tons) of them. Mostly, the men are selling locally, but they have shipped some fish to Russia and Georgia. Two fish processing plants operate in Aralsk and a third, with a capacity of 6,000 tons a year, is under construction. Middle-aged men and women who left the region when they were young are starting to return for the fishing, and they’re building houses. Billboards announcing the Aral’s return stand beside a new hotel.

To be sure, progress has been limited, but the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has said he hopes Aralsk can become a tourist destination. In 2008 he stood on the dam near the town and committed to a five-year, $250 million project that will guide the North Aral, still 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from the city, back to the harbor through an elaborate system of locks and dams. The World Bank will help, but most of the cost will fall on the government, which happens to be flush with cash from its oil fields: Kazakhstan is expected to double oil output and become one of the world’s top 10 oil-producing countries by 2020. With the government’s help, some say the water could bring more than just fish to the city. Locals imagine hotels, cafes, and nightclubs.

Nonetheless, while the president talks about attracting tourists to the city, Aralsk’s fishermen are relishing the simple pleasure of casting their nets. “For now,” Stourjesdijk says, “they will fish.” And for now, fishing is plenty.”

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