The Seven Unwonders of the World: The Aral Sea

In this regular segment, Woroni takes you on a tour of the greatest man-made cluster-fucks ever to grace the surface of the Earth. This anti-guidebook will introduce you to the most spectacularly ruinous landmarks the world over, from the dying Aral Sea in Khazakstan to the smouldering ruins of the old French Pacific nuclear proving grounds. Whether their sheer folly makes you want to laugh or cry, these spectacular monuments to the supreme power of human are worth a visit.

The Aral Sea, or Aral Teñizi, if you’re speaking Kazakh, means two very different things, depending on where you happen to be placed on the timeline of world history. If you have the good fortune to be hanging out before about AD 1960, “the Aral Sea” means something like the Sea of Islands, a name that originates with the same Old Turkic-speaking tribes that produced Genghis Khan. It refers to an enormous inland sea in the Central Asian portion of the USSR, a giant turquoise jewel among the sprawling, monotonous plains of modern-day Kazakh- and Uzbekistan, shot through with clusters of islands and teeming with fish – so many, in fact, that at this time the vibrant rural fishing industry around the Aral Sea produces one-sixth of the USSR’s supply of fish. This fact gains significance when you recall that, despite being short of probably everything else in the world, the old USSR was never, ever short of fish; hell will freeze over before you’re unable to get pickled herring in St Petersburg.

If, however, you happen to be unfortunate enough to be living, say, about now, “the Aral Sea” means a whole different kettle of fish altogether. Today, the Aral Sea is pretty much an enormous, faintly-glowing desert, prone to toxic and acutely corrosive dust-storms and bearing the scars of a few decades’ worth of Soviet weapons testing. Scattered throughout the dry, flat wasteland at random intervals are the rusting hulks of Soviet-era fishing vessels, which were unable to be rescued from the receding tide, and now sit upright on their keels like an absurdly well-funded exercises in surrealist sculpture. If you happen to be amongst the few remaining Kazakhs in the old port towns of Aral or Muynak, now stranded dozens of kilometres from the hypersalinated rump of the sea, “the Aral Sea” probably means something closer to what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he wrote about

“… where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”

The decline of the Aral Sea began in the late 50s, when Russian engineers had the idea of terraforming the reasonably infertile steppes of Uzbekistan into a fluffy white cotton-exporting mega-paradise – not the least because cotton, unlike fish, is a fantastic tool for procuring much-needed hard currency To this end, the two major rivers flowing into the Aral sea were diverted into a leaky irrigation channel that ran out into the Karakum Desert. This, not unpredictably, was not an unqualified success for Soviet agriculture, and had the bonus side-effect of essentially tipping out an entire sea onto the ground. At roughly the same time, a weapons-testing station was set up on one of the sea’s many islands, where the military had bit of a geeze at what one could do with anthrax, smallpox and the actual plague. Occasionally a little biological friendly fire leaked out of the island and killed some people in Aral and/or the local Saiga deer population, which, lets be honest, is pretty unavoidable when you’re stuffing anthrax spores into aerosolising bombs and then detonating them out in the open. Not surprisingly, the most of the old population of the Aral foreshore went the way of the water, and left.

Today, the Aral Sea is actually three small highly-toxic lakes, covering only 15% of the sea’s original area. UNESCO and local governments are currently attempting to resuscitate the old inland sea, but I recommend a visit before they ruin its quality as one of the seven great Unwonders. Fishing rods not necessary. Don’t drink the water. Try not to get the plague.