FEATURE - Kazakh fishing port haunted by ghost of dying sea
Author: Tara FitzGerald
Its port, once the pride and joy of its residents, is dry and empty. No fish, cargoes or boats come through here anymore. Fishermen are an endangered species.
It is only the eerie, rusting hulks of ships and the salt-encrusted earth that are testament to a sea that once lapped at the very edges of the town.
People in Aralsk say it has been more than 25 years since they could see the Aral Sea, and now the once-thriving port resembles nothing more than a huge, rubbish-strewn sand pit.
Enquiries as to the whereabouts of the water are treated like a bad joke.
"The sea? What sea? We don't have a sea here anymore," said a man disembarking at Aralsk's train station. Behind him a huge mural shows how the people of Aralsk provided fish for a hungry nation on Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's request.
The Aral Sea, which straddles the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is dying. And the former fishing port of Aralsk is fading along with it.
The water-thirsty region has two great rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which used to feed the Aral Sea. But in the 1960s Soviet planners built a network of irrigation canals to divert their waters into cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, starving the sea of its life blood.
Now a mere trickle reaches the sea, and the water that does is contaminated by the residues of pesticides, fertilisers and defoliants used on the cotton fields.
DYING SEA BLEEDS TOWN DRY
Once the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral has shrunk so much that it has now split into two separate bodies of water - the northern or 'little Aral Sea' and a larger southern body.
"We didn't realise what was happening at first," said local resident Gulzhikhan Abdulgaziyeva.
As a clanging metallic noise echoed across the port-turned-dust bowl, she sighed and said: "That used to be a repair shop for barges and boats. Now they only fix cars."
It is not only the fishing and shipping industries that have suffered from the sea's disappearance. Textile and electronics factories lie empty and the town mill does not work any more.
Desertification and high salt levels are damaging agriculture.
The town of Aralsk is home to around 39,000 people and the Aralsk region around 68,000. It has one of the highest unemployment levels in Kazakhstan.
"We have lots and lots of unemployment here. I myself sat for three years without work," Gulzhikhan said. She now does some work at the town's tiny, private guest house.
"But we have very few entrepreneurs like (the hotel boss). If we had more maybe we would have less unemployment."
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been running an Aral Sea Prgramme since 1995. It focuses mainly on water resources management, small business development, humanitarian assistance and a social and health programme.
For the ecological disaster of the dying sea has brought climate change - colder winters and hotter summers - to the region and a host of associated health problems.
UNDP says anaemia in women, tuberculosis and high infant mortality are among the major health issues. Incidences of cancer and respiratory diseases have also risen.
"We have lots of health problems now because of the ecological situation...deformed kids are born," Gulzhikhan said.
And everyone you meet in Aralsk warns of rising crime blamed on unemployment.
Aralsk's museum is like an obituary to the town's former livelihood. Curator Rysbek Akimov proudly shows off the seashell fossils and fish teeth stacked in glass cases and enormous pickled fish stare out of jars.
"Once upon a time people all over the Soviet Union bought our fish. They were very tasty fish even though it was a small sea," he said wistfully.
Sergei Sokolov, UNDP national project manager in Aralsk, says it is now around 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Aralsk to the sea.
GRAVEYARD OF SHIPS
Searching for what remains of the s