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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mayor Building Dam to Save Kazakh Side of the Sea

ARALSK, Kazakhstan -- When a patch of desert appeared in the northern part of the Aral Sea in the early '90s, dividing the sea into a smaller northern lake and a larger southern sea, local Mayor Alashbayev Abdeyaziovich seized the opportunity to make the division permanent. He decided to build a dam that would replenish water levels of the northern lake that is fed by the Syr Darya River. But the dam would also prevent the river from flowing into the southern sea, hastening that body of water's disappearance.

"The entire Aral Sea cannot be saved anyway," Abdeyaziovich explains in his office in Aralsk, a former fishing port located 200 kilometers north of the dam. "The small amount of water from the river is not enough. If we didn't build the dam, the north would turn into a salt flat." A study of the region by the United Nations Development Agency agrees that the dam will not solve the Aral Sea crisis, but only "change the geographic distribution of environmental damage."

The dam, which closes the former Berg Strait, marks the latest chapter in the history of manipulation of the waterways of Central Asia. But unlike previous efforts where Moscow strategists directed the course of nature, this time a Kazakh politician is in charge. A painting of the long dried-up port of Aralsk - full of water - hangs on a wall in Abdeyaziovich's otherwise Spartan, particleboard-paneled office. The mayor's dam is a ray of hope for residents of the stricken area who are tired of the numerous teams of advisers and scientists who have studied the disappearing sea over the years. "If every consultant brought a bucket of water, there would be no Aral Sea problem," says Brad Anderson, a small business development adviser for the United Nations Development Agency.

Such project fatigue explains in part the motivation behind the 60 people who work in two-week shifts on the dam, driving giant earthmovers and bulldozers along the salty wasteland and scrub bush and piling sand on a long, low hill. No one knows how long the construction will take. A first attempt washed away in 1996 when water spilled over the top. This time the mayor has called for a 12-meter-high wall.

Serik Sulimonov clambers down from his earthmover and looks at the late afternoon sun glistening off the sea. Waves lap against the dam. "It should hold wat er now," he says. Without a clay core or concrete reinforcements, however, William Hill, an irrigation specialist for the UN's Aral Seashore Rehabilitation and Capacity Building Project, doesn't think the dam will hold. The city cannot afford to purchase reinforcements, and the mayor believes the native sand of the steppe is strong enough to do the job.

At 7 meters at its deepest point, the dam is holding so far. The water level has risen 3 meters since the beginning of the dam's construction in 1997. Last fall, the water had crept in to about 16 kilometers from Aralsk. Rising water in the north has allowed a modest revival of commercial fishing for flounder. "We now have 22 fishing collectives working," Abdeyaziovich says proudly. Shallow puddles have recently begun to appear near the old wharf, and water may reach the port this spring.

Damming off the north, which is fed by the Syr Darya River, has one topographical advantage. From an airplane window 10,000 meters above ground, Kazakhstan appears perfectly flat. But in fact the land is sloping on a gentle gradient toward the west. About 1,000 kilometers from the mountain source of the Syr Darya, this flat land meets a sudden and jagged cliff more than 200 meters higher than the steppe, marking a new geological formation, the Ustyurt plateau. The entire western shore of the Aral Sea is bounded by this cliff. The low gradient in the east means even a tiny drop in sea level bares huge areas of salt flats. It also means a few meters of piled-up sand can change the shape of the sea.

So far, the city of Aralsk is putting up most of the cost of the dam. Monthly operating expenses are about $30,000 according to a foreman at the site. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to support the mayor after construction started and has arranged a $200,000 grant. The World Bank is considering a $10 million loan, according to Kadir Yurukoglu, the Kazakh representative.

Ecologists are skeptical the dam will improve the region's overall environment as a larger area in the south, mostly in Uzbekistan, will dry into dust-producing flats. Rinet Iskhakov, a loan officer with the World Bank in Tashkent says Uzbek officials are upset by the project, although they have not yet protested officially.

Meanwhile, Aralsk residents are waiting for the sea to return to their town. "The land first appeared there," says Salima Zhasekeneva, a retired teacher, pointing to a small hump in the desert she first noticed 25 years ago. "We support the mayor," Zhasekeneva says, bundled in scarves against the cold wind carrying salty chalky dust. "I don't know how far away the water is now, but it is coming back."

- By Andrew Kramer