Sultan Palace Merv

The Aral Sea and Muynak

The Aral Sea was once one of the world's largest inland salt seas. Now, it is reduced to a bare shadow of its recent size through extensive irrigation which has seriously depleted the flow of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers. The two major river systems in Central Asia and Aral Sea regeneration inflow. The sea has gone through a considerable number of changes over many thousand of years through natural causes. The beds of the rivers are constantly shifting and satellite photographs clearly show traces of ancient river beds flowing into different parts of the sea. Sometimes they bypassed the Aral Sea altogether, turning south and west to run into the Caspian Sea. The ancient branch of Amu Darya that once drained into the Caspian sea is known as Uzboy. The dry river bed now runs through empty desert but archeological research has found traces of settlements along its banks, showing that it was flowing relatively recently in historical terms.

The effects of the shrinking Aral Sea are very serious for the people who live around and in the oasis. The town of Muynak was once a flourishing fishing port with a large cannery. First the fish began to disappear as the lake became increasingly saline, and then the shoreline began to retreat until today Muynak is in the middle of the desert, surrounded only by the rusting hulks of the fishing vessels that once plied the lake. Storms passing over the dry lake bed pick up salty dust contaminated with pesticides, fertilizers and industrial waste and blow over the towns and villages of Khorezm, creating long term health issues for their inhabitants and stifling the growth of crops.

The climate of the region has also changed. Once the sea acted as a buffer against the bitterwinter winds from the north, while summer evaporation cooled and moisture to the dry desert air. Now the summers are drier and shorter, while the winters are longer and colder. The dust is also contributing to the degradation of the mountain glaciers in the Pamir and Tien-Shan Mountains that feed the rivers flowing into the Sea.

Once the Aral Sea region was rich in wildlife. The sea supported over twenty species of fish, while the river delta was home to over 70 varieties of mammals and over 300 kinds of birds. Today the figure for mammals is reckoned at 32 and the birds at 160. Plant life has suffered equally. Invaluable wetlands have dried up or turned into salt marsh and increasing salt levels in the groundwater have killed off many species of fodder and flowering plants.

Some measures are done to attempt to alleviate the problems of the Aral Sea. In Kazakhstan, a barrier has been built to contain the water flowing into the northern end of the sea from the Syr-Darya. This has allowed the small lake thus created to start to grow in size again, with a noticeable improvement in local environmental conditions. The southern part of the sea is much larger and such measures are not feasible, so that Karakalpakstan does not have this option. However, plans are in place to construct a magor canal along the Akcha-darya, the line of the old river bed flowing from south-eastern Karakalpakstan into the eastern side of the Aral Sea. The canal will drain irrigation water from the fields in the south of the region, helping to lower the water table and reduce salinization.

Baday Tugai reserve

The Tugai forests are the original vegetation of the river banks and their preservation is critical for the ecological and environmental well being of the region. Within Karakalpakstan, on the road from Biruni to Nukus, a park covering some six and a half thousand hectares has been established to protect one of the last relatively pristine stretches of Tugai forest along the eastern bank of the Amu Darya river. The reserve is a haven for a variety of birds and small mammals as well as a herd of endangered Bukhara deer.