Nukus is the capital of the Karakalpakstan Republic. It used to be independent. It still goes by the name and the title of Republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpaks number only about 400.000 today. The Aral Sea is situated in the north of the Republic. The Aral Sea is along the border of western Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan. The water to the sea came from the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers, from the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. In the 1950s there was an average of 55 cubic km of water a year flowing into the Aral Sea, at that time the sea covered an area of 66,900 sq km.

The sea had , as people tell it, lovely clear water, pristine beaches, enough fish to support a huge fishing industry in the ports of Moynaq and Aralsk. There were even passenger ferries crossing from north to south. Then the USSR ‘s planners, decided there was more water needed to grow cotton. More and more water was needed, more and more water was used. The Aral Sea started to dry up. By the 1980 the flow of water into the Aral Sea was only a tenth of the 1950s water supply! Te production of cotton rose, the Aral Sea sank. The fishing industry finished, and ships were literally left high and dry. Of the 173 animal species only 38 survived.

As the sea shrunk, the climate around the lake changed, the air is drier, winters colder and the summers are hotter. Salt and sand from the exposed beds is blown over hundreds of kilometres in big salt-dust storms. One of the worst ones, according to the professor I met in Nukus, I witnessed for two days in Nukus. A layer of salty dust covering the whole town. The town itself disappeared, it was as if I was in the middle of Armageddon. I only witnessed this once before, during Black Friday, in Adelaide, when the bushfires raged all around town. Smothering Adelaide in smoke and dust and an eery glow hung over the entire city. In Uzbekistan, and I am sure in Kazakhstan too, these salty dust storms create a range of health problems, cancer of the throat etc., the area has the highest infant mortality rates in the former USSR, as well as high rates of birth deformities.

It is possible to make tours to the area, to see the devastation first hand. It would have been a two day trip, but on my own, with a non English speaking guide, too much for me, I declined! Also being confronted by an environmental disaster on such a large scale, would devastate me as well. At the present there is nothing Uzbekistan can do. The Russians created the problem, left, and refuse to support Uzbekistan financially or to reimburse them, to restore the sea. It might be too late already. This is a story that comes up a lot. The Russians came, used and abused, the lands the people, left, washed their hands, and left those small nations to it! Congratulations, you have your independence! Make the best of it! ( with thanks to the Lonely Planet for this information, albeit four years old!)

( no photos of the Aral Sea, as I did not take the tour! But you can google Aral Sea, ships in the desert, and environmental disaster for images!)