In the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, you can come across abandoned rusty ships near a ghost town called Moynaq. While there are plenty of rusting ships in the world, these are unique because they are surrounded by the desert on all sides.
Moynaq used to be famous for its seaport on the edge of the Aral Sea, and the city’s economy grew through fishing.
Business was good and Moynaq developed rapidly until it became a center of industrial fishing and canning. Fish inhabiting the Aral Sea included saltwater carp, flounder, and catfish.
Today, the city is home to only a few thousand people, but 40 years before, it was bustling with around 40,000 residents. Instead of a thriving lake populated by fish, there is a dry seabed littered with shells of the sea creatures that once lived there.
Although Moynaq can be classed as one of the many Soviet cities that fell into decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that is only part of the story. In fact, the city’s rapid decline is mainly due to the fact that there is now a staggering 90-mile gap between the seacoast and the city.
Despite its name, the Aral Sea is actually an endorheic lake – that is, a basin holding a body of water that doesn’t drain into rivers or the sea. Instead, the water seeps out into marshland and then evaporates.
Formerly, it was the fourth-largest lake in the world, measuring 40 meters (131 yards) deep with around 60,000 square kilometers (23,166 square miles) of water. But it’s been shrinking since the 1960s, and now it is 10% of its former size.
One local fisherman gave an interview to the BBC website where he recalled being able to sunbathe on the beach as a child and dive into the sea. He also describes how they used to grow melons to sell and clover for the cattle on ground that is now an arid wasteland.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea is considered to be a serious man-made ecological disaster, perhaps one of the most serious disasters of all time. Such a catastrophe was caused by the Soviet authorities when they diverted water from the main two rivers that feed the Aral Sea: the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.
The Soviet authorities, who were in charge of local agriculture, wanted the river water to provide irrigation for nearby land so they could grow cotton. Not only did such practices deplete the water level, but the agricultural runoff also resulted in serious pollution finding its way into the Aral Sea.
The small amount of water left in the sea now has extremely high salinity levels, making it toxic to lifeforms. The fish began to die off, and the fishing industry collapsed. But that wasn’t the end of the trouble: since the sea receded, life for the residents of Muynak has become incredibly hazardous.
Strong winds crossing the seabed create dust storms with the exposed, polluted sand and salt. When these particles fall on the land, they can blight crops and, if breathed in, can cause acute and chronic infections in humans and animals.
Without the sea to moderate the winds and weather, cities like Muynak now face summers that are hotter than they were before and, conversely, winters that are colder.
The devastation of the sea’s decline has hit Moynaq hardest out of all the surrounding cities. Ships that had been left in their docks can now be found stranded and rusting in the middle of the desert. The population rapidly shrank due to the changing climate and the impossibility of fishing.
Although the Soviet’s plans were successful and Uzbekistan became one of the top cotton exporters in the 1980s, this success came at a huge environmental cost.
Today, the desert city of Moynaq is famous for its cemetery of ships that anyone can climb onto and explore. There is also a one-room building that houses a museum charting Moynaq’s history. Around the edges of what was once the shoreline stand abandoned and dilapidated fish-processing and canning plants.
There are still permanent residents in the city who have refused to leave despite the changed circumstances. However, most of the streets are empty and many of the buildings in the city have fallen into ruin. Instead of a fishing industry, the bed of the Aral Sea is now being drilled for oil and gas, and many rigs now sit where ships used to sail.
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