Let us introduce you to a country, where doctors pick cotton and where ships are anchored in the sea of sand. No, this article is not about Dr. Seuss books. Welcome to Uzbekistan!
Let’s begin with some geography facts. The largest water reservoir in Uzbekistan is the Aral Sea, being one of the four largest lakes in the world before the 1960s’. The Aral Sea has two major inflow rivers - Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
In the 1960s, the government of the Soviet Union decided to divert Amu Darya and Syr Darya in order to irrigate the desert and make its soil suitable for cotton cultivation. The water level in the Aral Sea started drastically decreasing contrary to the level of salinity in the remaining basins. Today the Aral Sea declined to 10% of its original size. The whole process is now considered one of the planet’s worst environmental disaster.
The iconic (and inglorious) example of this process is Moynaq – a small town in northern Karakalpakstan, once a bustling fishing port, now the home of ghost fleet, based 150 kilometers from the water’s edge.
At the beginning of the Aral Sea shrinking the fishermen followed the water’s edge. But when the high level of salinity killed all the fish, they gave up, living the ships for the mercy of sun and scrap collectors.
Today the fleet is the major tourist attraction and a sad example of human irresponsibility.
The visitors may descend to “the port”, wander among the trawlers and take apocalyptic photos of the site.
It is believed that the disaster can be undone if Amu Darya and Syr Darya were not diverted to irrigate the cotton fields anymore. But since Uzbekistan’s economy relies mainly on cotton, it won’t happen anytime soon.
The surrealism of Moynaq strikes visitors from the very beginning: located in the middle of the desert, the town is dotted with images of ships and filled with closed fish cannery factories. But the most bizarre and disturbing thing is the panoramic view from the hill at the fishing fleet rusting among the dunes.
When it comes to cotton, Uzbek government is rather touchy, being accused by several human rights organizations of operating the world’s largest state-run system of forced labor, by some called “Uzbek slavery”.
For two months of each year, the citizens of Uzbekistan are forced to quit their normal life and duties in order to participate in the cotton harvest. It undermines several important areas of public life, like education and healthcare, due to the mass mobilization of teachers and doctors. Even the pensioners are forced to pick cotton – otherwise they are being deprived of 50% of their pension.
If you want to know more about this topic, check out the Cotton Campaign website and get the latest news from the coalition.
Tips: Don’t miss the Aral Sea Museum of Moynaq. Although small and pretty often closed for visitors, it provides some good information on the Aral Sea topic. Plus there’s a really cool Soviet-style meeting hall, where you can climb the rostrum and feel like a true revolutionist.