Once upon a time, the town of Muynak was a bustling port along the Aral Sea. City workers still paint the street signs with images of seagulls and ocean waves, and here and there the masts of ships poke up between the buildings. The coast, though, is nowhere to be found. "I've never seen the sea," says Mural Najimov, a 25-year-old local who's filling six jugs with salty water from a public well. Sergey Lipatovich, 67, former port captain, walks among the rusted hulls of ships, anchors dug into sand that used to be sea bottom. Thirty years ago, he says, the water level reached more than two meters. Now the shore is 200 kilometers away. "There have been so many projects to save this water," he says. "And not a single one worked."
Once the world's fourth largest inland sea, the Aral has shrunk to less than a third of its original size, leaving behind a string of port towns to fight off the encroaching desert on their own. The 35 million people in the region--a tenth of whom live in a disaster zone--face a steady rise in disease and a further drop into poverty. "They are learning to adapt," says Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan desertification expert Kural Atanazarov, "by running away if they can."
There's no single villain to blame for this mess. Dismal Soviet land-use policy played a role, but so have corruption, poverty, global warming and drought. Rivers may dry up completely, say experts, unless regional governments come up with a coordinated water-sharing plan. Even if they did, it wouldn't help the people who live near the Aral: experts say the sea will never be restored to its former size.
Water seemed plentiful enough until the Soviets tapped the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan in the 1960s. Water levels downriver dropped. Nowadays, the Central Asian states harbor too much resentment to strike a solution. "We need to divide the water in a neighborly way--there is no other option," says Uzbekistan water specialist Bekh Tashmukhamedov. Instead, Turkmenistan is building a 2,000-square-kilometer lake in the Kara-Kum desert for irrigation and its own water security. "They are creating swamps and we are turning into dust," says Lipatovich. "You call that fair?"
So much water is diverted upriver for irrigation that runoff has pooled into a giant impromptu lake, 220 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, at the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Periodically it floods pastures and roads, even as regions farther downriver get drier and drier. In Uzbekistan, the once mighty Amu Darya river is a mere trickle--three-kilometer-long bridges span three-meter-wide streams. Along the sides of the road outside the western Uzbek city of Nukus are huge white patches of salt stretching as far as the eye can see. The salt flats blow in from the north, from areas like Muynak, and then drift on southward.
Nineteenth-century diseases are rampant. One in 500 people has tuberculosis. "We are seeing forms of TB we thought had disappeared ages ago, like tuberculosis of the bones," says infectious-diseases expert Natalia Vdovina of the medical institute in Karakalpak. Stomach and intestinal cancer rates, thyroid problems, anemia and infertility affect large portions of the population. The infant-mortality rate--about one in 10--is among the world's highest. "The growing desert makes people poor, and then they get sick," says gynecologist Aziza Kyrbanova.
The only solution, it seems, is to flee. Asimbae Siregiev, 22, just returned from what's left of the Aral Sea, where for three days he failed to catch a fish. "I want to leave this town," he says. "But I don't know where to go. I only know that I want to go wherever there is water."