Local villagers’ efforts led to the saving of the North Aral Sea


September 14, 2010, Hal Foster


The story of western Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea shrinking to 10 percent of its original size has become known around the world.

So has the story of saving the North Aral Sea by building a dam to prevent its waters from flowing into the nearly dried-up South Aral Sea.

A story that hasn’t been told is how the north sea-saving effort started. It is a heartening tale about villagers who wanted to preserve their way of life taking the matter into their own hands against long odds.

It’s also a story of the villagers learning the art of modern-day public relations to tell the world what had happened to them – and convince the world to help.

The dye was cast for the self-help story in the 1960s when the Soviet Union began diverting water from the rivers that fed the Aral Sea -- the Syr Darya and Amu Darya -- to irrigate cotton in Uzbekistan, to Kazakhstan’s south.

The diversions led to the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake drying up to the point that in the late 1980s it had become three smaller lakes – the North Aral Sea and the eastern and western portions of the much larger South Aral Sea.

The shrinking of the sea, and the accompanying jump in its salinity, ruined its once-thriving fishery.

The self-help story began in the early 1990s when residents of villages near the sea decided that unless they did something, the lake would be gone – and with it their hopes of ever making a living from fishing again. Without fishing, most would have to leave the area they grew up in and loved.

If the Aral Sea had dried up a decade later, the villagers might not have needed a self-help program. But in the early 1990s newly independent Kazakhstan was scrambling to replace the revenue it lost from the government of the no-longer-existent Soviet Union.

With Kazakhstan’s government having difficulty finding money to provide even basic public services, including public-sector salaries and pensions, there was no money to address an environmental debacle such as the Aral Sea, regardless of the magnitude of the tragedy.

Residents decide to build their own dam

So a mayor in the area, Begali Kauypov, decided to lead a grassroots dam-building effort. In Kazakhstan the title “mayor” can be used for the leader of a city or a district within a province, and Kauypov was mayor of Kyzylorda Province’s Aralsk District, which included the 32,000-population city of Aralsk.

Kudabai Zhienbaev, the mayor of Karateren village, said his settlement and several other villages responded to Kauypov’s call for help constructing the dam.

The villagers, with no engineer to guide them, built the first of two primitive dams between the North Aral and South Aral Seas in 1992, Zhienbaev said. They put in long hours with no pay in winter.

The mile-long dam was more a dike, made mostly of sand. It quickly washed away.

The failure shattered the hopes of many villagers, but some still believed that with engineering guidance and proper materials, they could build a lasting structure.

Meanwhile, the villagers had captured the sympathetic attention of journalists in Aralsk. The biggest city in the area used to be on the Aral Sea but had not been a port for years as the lake dried up.

The journalists began writing about the quest to build a dam. It was the first blush of a public-relations campaign that would span the globe, becoming more effective as time went by.

Four years later the villagers tried constructing another dam.

This time they had the backing of the governor of Kyzylorda Province, Berdibek Saparbaev, and the technical leadership of a politician who was also an engineer, Aralsk City Mayor Alashbai Baimurzaev.

Zhienbaev remembers how difficult it was to convince the once-burned residents of his village to take part in the second project.

“I talked with every single one” of the 1,500 residents of Karateren, he said. “I begged them to help. I tried to persuade them that they would have a good future. I was a young mayor, however – only 29 – and many people older than me would not listen.”

Because the first dam had washed away, Zhienbaev said, many villagers accused the second-project organizers of raising false hopes. “They told me it was impossible for villagers to build a dam on their own that would last,” he said.

In the end, he said, it was mostly young people who joined the second effort.

The engineer mayor, Baimurzaev, rounded up all the trucks, tractors and pieces of heavy equipment the villagers had.

As construction materials, the villagers “brought anything they had that could help hold back the water,” including bricks and concrete blocks used to tether animals, Zhienbaev said.

Aralsk City residents also pitched in, donating construction materials, fuel and other items.

The dam was going to go up near the village of Kokaral, so its residents offered the volunteer construction workers free food and lodging.

A few months after the project started, the 7-mile-long dam was almost finished.

“When they came to the end, it was difficult to seal off the final section from the rushing water,” Zhienbaev said, but the team finally accomplished it.

The villagers, the residents of Aralsk City and officials in the provincial capital of Kyzylorda were overjoyed when the structure held.

And ecologists were surprised when the level of the North Aral Sea rose so quickly that the villagers were able to catch fish again within two years.

Locals and the international community work together for a permanent solution

Meanwhile, journalists across Kazakhstan had picked up the story and Saparbaev, the governor, was savvy enough to help the villagers bring it to the attention of international journalists. The global coverage was to prove important after the second dam gave way two and a half years later.

Zhienbaev remembers the day it happened – April 19, 1999. A huge storm slammed into the area, spawning flooding.

Although the engineering on the second dam had been solid, no provision had been made for dealing with the unusual situation of raging floodwaters.

The second self-help project showed that success could be achieved, however, so the villagers quickly began planning for a third dam. This time they had lots of help.

Kazakhstan’s oil- and minerals-based economy was beginning to boom, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev committed government money to his long-held personal interest in saving the Aral Sea. International development and environmental organizations, including the World Bank, also signed on.

And a growing number of international news organizations spread the word.

A permanent solution to the challenge of sealing off the North Aral Sea came in the form of a 9-mile-long modern dam, the Kokaral, that was completed in August of 2005 with Kazakh-government and World Bank financing. Most of the structure is a sand dike but a centerpiece concrete section with spillways will ensure its survivability.

International engineers and construction specialists helped Kazakh experts with the $86 million project.

Two of the project leaders were the Aralsk City mayor at the time, Nazhimaddin Musabayev, and a former Aralsk mayor, Aitbai Kosherbaev.

Musabayev had a burning personal motivation for seeing the project through. He was deputy governor of Kyzylorda Province in 1996, the year that provincial officials helped villagers build the dam that ended up washing away in 1999.

Commercial fishing returns to the North Aral Sea

The 2005 dam revived the North Aral Sea so quickly that environmentalists were stunned. The water level rose from 98 feet to what is considered the optimum of 138 feet.

More important for the villagers, a commercial fishery returned to the North Aral. Villagers caught 4,000 tons of 17 species last year.

The availability of much more water has even produced microclimate changes in the area, experts say, generating more rain for agriculture.

Sitting in the living room of his spacious home with visiting American, German and Russian journalists last week, Zhienbaev said the third dam’s success transformed him from a once-disbelieved figure in his village to a venerated one.

The 43-year-old said he has no hard feelings toward the onetime doubters.

“I am happy to eat fish from the Aral Sea with people who didn’t believe in this effort,” he said.

In addition to the lessons of faith in the future and perseverance toward a goal that he learned from the quest to build a lasting dam, Zhienbaev learned the value of public relations.

In the past 16 years he has played host in his home to 300 international guests, including scientists, ecologists, politicians and journalists.

In his chats with them, he notes that “the problem of the Aral Sea is not just Kazakhstan’s problem – it’s the world’s problem.”

And he credits Nazarbayev, the World Bank and the international community for the modern dam that helped save his village and the surrounding ones from extinction.

But the real heroes of the Aral Sea preservation effort are the villagers like Zhienbaev who decided that the only way to save the life they cherished was to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.