Uzbekistan: Preserving Life Amid an Environmental Disaster

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Rafat Aimuratov is on a crusade to save Muynak.

The former bustling fisheries hub in western Uzbekistan is ground zero in what is widely acknowledged to be among the worst environmental disasters of the past century. Decades of intensive water-hungry cotton farming sapped the rivers filling the Aral Sea and left Muynak high and dry, dozens of kilometers from the shore.

If the town is to survive, believes Aimuratov, an ecologist, it will need to find new ways forward. That is now his life’s mission.

Aimuratov, who is originally from Nukus, around a 200-kilometer drive to the south, works out of a small laboratory on the approach to Muynak. In it, he studies the plant and animal life of a terrain that can seem at first glance as inhospitable as another planet.

But as Aimuratov told, the deserts surrounding the dried-up Aral are home to at least 83 types of plants and 18 species of animals. The relative abundance of life offers a glimmer of hope for the future. “My main goal is to cultivate hardy plants on the dried-up surface of the Aral Sea. These are what scientists call halophytes,” Aimuratov said.

Understanding the benefits of halophytes requires delving into the history of the Aral disaster.

Up until the 1960s, the Aral Sea was one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water, spanning across 67,000 square kilometers, an area roughly the size of Ireland. The Aral teemed with bream, carp and pike perch among other types of fish. At the height of the fishing industry, toward the end of the 1950s, annual catches hovered around the 46,000-ton mark. Within two decades, that had dropped to less than 7,000 tons, and then again to a mere 1,000 tons by the early 1980s. Between catching, processing and transportation, some 80 percent of the inhabitants of shore towns in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were once somehow gainfully employed by the industry.

All that took second place, however, to the economic imperative of generating ever larger amounts of cotton, which could be sold for valuable foreign currency. As the sea shrunk inexorably to its current state, the lightly salty waters degenerated into a shallow, brackish soup unfit for most animal life.

The loss of a sea – or lake, to be technically accurate – spelled the appearance of a new desert, the Aralkum. This 60,000 square kilometer desert not only precipitated the destruction of the economy, but also threw up a sinister host of fresh dangers.

Scientists estimate that more than 75 million tons of salt and chemically tainted dust are whipped up by powerful eastward winds every year and spread over a vast area. The fine detritus is cast so far up into the atmosphere that traces of Aral salt have been detected as far as the Arctic.

To stop that from happening, ecologists like Aimuratov have for years been working to extend the proliferation of saxaul and other similar desert-friendly plant species. When the plants put down their roots, they help hold the soil and sand in place, thus reducing the knock-on environmental effects. The idea to reforest the dry Aral seabed with these halophytes is not new, but research is constantly ongoing to determine which plants can best adapt to the local environment.

The government’s contribution has been to introduce legislation making it illegal to destroy or uproot saxaul and other hardy desert strains. Left to its own devices, saxaul can grow up to six meters in height and live up to 60 years.

Under the terms of a government decree adopted in 2014, anybody caught clearing 1 square meter of saxaul can be fined 29,000 Uzbek sums (around $7.60 at the official rate). The penalty for destroying one plant is 15,000 sums.

Enforcing that law, however, is hard work in a setting where inhabitants are in perennial search for anything to supplement their meager-to-inexistent incomes. Fighting to stop the poachers that chop down saxaul for sale as firewood is one of Aimuratov’s official jobs.

During one outing with in tow, Aimuratov caught a resident of an Aral village red-handed as he was hacking away at one plant. The culprit, Sharafiddin Yelmanov, told Aimuratov he did not even know what the word “poacher” – the local usage is the Russian term “brakonyer” – even meant.

Yelmanov explained that he, as well as his wife, does not have a regular job. The only way they can feed their two small children is to collect saxaul and sell it as firewood. What is not sold, they use to warm their own modest home, which is not linked to the gas grid.

After a brisk exchange of words, Aimuratov confiscated Yelmanov’s ax.

Such piecemeal action is unlikely to make much of an impact.

As Yelmanov explained, his entire village is engaged in the business of harvesting saxaul and will likely continue to do so until a gas pipeline is built to supply an easier source of fuel for heating and cooking. And it does not help that saxaul is universally believed to make for the best fuel on which to grill the tastiest skewered meat – the shashlik beloved by Uzbeks.

The longer-term key to regeneration will lie in creating economic opportunities for the local population, observers contend. To that end, the government has created a special economic zone in Muynak, and is promoting the region as a destination for environmental tourists. To encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop there, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has approved a 10-year tax amnesty for businesses in the town, up to 2027.

Manzura Yerniyazova has taken up the challenge and opened a sewing workshop that provides jobs for 15 young women.

Yerniyazova said she started out working as a seamstress in 2011 with a sewing machine bought with her own funds. “After that, I earned a $12,800 grant from the US Embassy in Uzbekistan to buy more equipment,” Yerniyazova said.

Yerniyazova’s dream is for more tourists to come to Muynak to buy her goods.

Economist Yuliy Yusupov said that the government has a lot more work left to do before visitors will be willing to make the trip. “For the development of tourism, they will need to make big investments in infrastructure – roads, street lighting, hotels, leisure facilities,” Yusupov told

At the moment, tourists tend to make it as far west as Bukhara. A slightly more intrepid or time-rich contingent gets as far as the historic remains of Khiva, another 450 kilometers further away. Getting to Muynak overland means crossing yet another 400 kilometers. The easiest way to reach the town is to fly to the city of Nukus, but in order for the lure to work, tourism agencies will need to start including the destination in travel itineraries, industry experts say.

For the few thousand people that have stuck it out in Muynak, the challenges ahead may sometimes appear insurmountable, but many refuse to surrender. “I was born and grew up in Muynak, and come what may, we have to live here,” Yerniyazova said.

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