I. The Aral Sea disaster

In today’s blog, the first in a two part series, William Wheeler ruminates on the ‘disaster discourse’ and the local human experience of the Aral Sea regression, subject of his forthcoming article in Global Environment (Special Issue on Disasters and Property guest-edited by Marc Elie and Fabien Locher, forthcoming September 2018).

 Disasters, as anthropologists have pointed out, lay bare deeper truths about the societies they strike.[1] After all, the impact that environmental forces have on people depends, in part at least, on social structures – the hierarchies and inequalities through which society is organised expose us to different degrees to the hazards of the material world around us.[2] Witness the recent horrendous wildfires in Greece – as much as a sign of a warming climate, they have been taken as the outcome of a decade of austerity, or of decades of flouted planning regulations and failure/absenteeism on the part of the state. As a result, disasters can stimulate critique, becoming blueprints for change and vehicles for hope – but they can also be forced into particular narratives, and, as they become symbols for something else, the complexities of local experience can be elided.

The regression of the Aral Sea, the subject of my forthcoming article for the special issue of Global Environment on disasters and property, is indicative of such trends. Long suppressed by the Soviet authorities, the wholly foreseeable drying up of the Aral Sea – the outcome of Soviet irrigation practices in Central Asia – gradually became known over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the most serious environmental disasters of the twentieth century. While Soviet environmentalists had tried to draw attention to the unfolding disaster throughout the 1970s, it was in the 1980s, in the era of perestroika and glasnost, that it burst into full public view across the Soviet Union and beyond – becoming a cause célèbre, which was mobilised by intellectuals as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Soviet political economy, prompting proposals for radical, systemic change.[3] The images of the disaster – ships stranded in the desert, the before and after shots from space of the massively shrunken sea – became globally famous, establishing it as a disaster of global proportions. As the photogenic disaster became internationally known – first popularised in the west in an appallingly written but exquisitely photographed National Geographic article[4] – it became caught up in Cold War categories, whereby the USSR was seen as a totalitarian entity that ravaged environments with its uniquely destructive environmental policies.[5]

Image 1
A comparison of the Aral Sea, 1989 and 2014. By 1989, the sea had already lost about 40% of its 1960 area, and 70% of its volume – and, crucially, salinity levels had risen to such an extent that native fish species had died out.
Source: By NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

But what is lacking from the famous images of the Aral Sea disaster is people. This is why, in my article – based on my ethnographic fieldwork on the Kazakh shores of the Aral in 2012–2014 – I focus on more mundane perspectives of people in the region today, who often question the catastrophic image so familiar to outsiders. Indeed, I found that people would be puzzled at the interest of so many foreigners, including myself, in the region; they would, instead, stress its ordinariness. Certainly, people talk a lot about economic problems – which they tend to relate to the dismemberment of the Soviet economy and the dikii kapitalizm, ‘wild capitalism’, that has followed; and certainly, they talk about ecological issues – described with the shorthand ekologiia, which locally tends to signify dust and salt in the air – and the consequent health problems. But most also insist on the positives of the region – the meat is, I was often told, the tastiest in the country, precisely because of the saltiness of the land.

Image 5
Herding horses on the steppe near Bögen, April 2014. Like camels, horses are not only deemed excellent meat, benefiting from the saltiness of the land, but also circulate in the ritual economy. Photograph by the author.

There is a sense of pride that, as Kazakhs and former nomads, they have been able to adapt to the harsher climatic conditions following the sea’s desiccation (and, I was told earnestly after several bottles, vodka helps with coping with ekologiia). It is a far cry from the apocalyptic images of ships rusting in the desert.

Image 2
Abandoned ships on the dried-up seabed. Today, mostly skeletons remain, as ships have been scrapped and sent to China – prompting a sense of local scandal. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In my article, I put forward various explanations for why the sea’s regression is not perceived locally as a disaster, including the time since the sea first disappeared and the recent ecological improvement following the partial restoration of the northern Aral (see below); but I also discuss the measures taken by the Soviet authorities to keep people in employment, which mitigated some of the effects of the sea’s regression; and I stress the strong moral commitment and affection towards the land, despite the ecological degradation. Intriguingly, I also found that many local people are well aware that this is not the first time in history that the sea has receded – local stories of previous regressions were passed down through the generations, bolstered by fishermen hauling up archaeological fragments from the seabed. (The recent discovery of a ruined mausoleum on the dried-up seabed has confirmed this.)

Image 3
Nauryzybai cheerfully walks through a dust storm in the fishing village of Bögen, November 2013. Photograph by the author.
Image 4
Celebrating May Day in warm spring sunshine on the steppe, which is scattered with yellow tulips. Photograph by the author.

Yet, while the complexities of local experience may be lost as disasters are shoehorned into wider narratives, it is nevertheless important to recognise what disaster discourse does, as it rallies actors and mobilises resources. As the perestroika activists saw the Aral as a symbol for everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union, it became a vehicle for imagining a better future. In a rather different way, in the post-Soviet period, constructions of a disaster of global proportions rallied foreign governments, international institutions and NGOs. This took place in a postsocialist, post-Cold War context of “hegemonic fragmentation and reconstruction”[6] when, in the supposed transition from state socialism to capitalism, the post-Soviet east was recategorised as backward, and posited as needing modernisation within the new global order. As such, the Aral became the site of new development interventions seeking to deal with Soviet environmental ruination.

Anthropologists of development would be unsurprised to learn that the results of these interventions were mixed. Indeed, by 2003, a pair of MSF researchers described a second disaster, ‘a disaster of international assistance’.[7] As a local joke went, if everyone who had come to Aral had brought a bucket of water, the sea would be full again. Against this backdrop, however, the Kökaral Dam/Dyke – built by the World Bank/Kazakhstan government in 2005 – stands out as a particularly successful project. The sea had split in the late 1980s into a large, southern sea and a much smaller northern sea, located exclusively in Kazakhstan and fed by the Syr Darya. But the northern sea was leaking into the southern sea, and risked drying up altogether. The dam has preserved and expanded the northern Aral, by preventing it from flowing into the southern sea. Sustained by the inflow of the Syr Darya, the water in the northern Aral has freshened, leading to a dramatic recovery of native fish species, and the recovery of the fishery. Ecological problems remain, and the sea remains far from the town of Aral’sk, and from most of the fishing villages, but – for fishing families in particular – its return has had a highly beneficial impact.

Image 6
Showing off some of the day’s catch, January 2013. Photograph by the author.
Image 7
Fishermen set out to lay their nets, April 2014. Photograph by the author.

Disaster discourse, then, may obscure local experience – but it is consequential. Even if, embedded as they were in post-Cold War hierarchies, the global images of disaster missed the realities of life in the region, they were evidently crucial to the dam being realised. But they were not the only condition for the dam’s construction. Indeed, in the 1990s, there was a widespread belief among the aid community that the sea was dead, and that aid should be channelled into supporting the local population to relocate. The dam’s construction was thus far from inevitable. One of the key factors in the dam’s ultimate construction was an earlier project that had proved that the sea was in fact alive, and that a fishery could be sustained on it. I will discuss this in the following part of this blog.

[1] See, for example, Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman, The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective (New York; London: Routledge, 1999).

[2] Piers M. Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters (London: Routledge, 1994).

[3] I have discussed this at greater length elsewhere, see William Wheeler, ‘Aral-88: Catastrophe, Critique and Hope’, Slavonic and East European Review 94 (2) (2016): 295–324.S

[4] William Ellis, ‘A Soviet Sea Lies Dying’, National Geographic 177: 72–93.

[5] e.g. Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege (London: Aurum, 1992); D.J. Peterson, Troubled Lands: The Legacy of Soviet Environmental Destruction (Boulder: Westview Press Inc., 1993).

[6] Susanne Brandtstädter, ‘Transitional Spaces: Postsocialism as a Cultural Process’, Critique of Anthropology 27 (2) (2007): 131–145, p. 138.

[7] Ian Small and Noah Bunce, ‘The Aral Sea Disaster and the Disaster of International Assistance’, Journal of International Affairs 56 (2) (2003): 59–73.


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