The remote desert town of Moynaq is the site of a huge and ongoing environmental disaster. It was once a fishing village, but the Aral Sea has gradually retreated due to rerouting of rivers to boost the cotton industry since the 1960s. It now lies 150km from the former coastline which is littered with rusting boats and ships.
Sandstorms on the dried-up seabed have caused widespread respiratory problems for the population of the area and poor water quality causes kidney and gastro problems. The fishing industry has literally dried-up and unemployment and outward migration are widespread.
The town lies in the autonomous republic of Karkalpakstan in the west of Uzbekistan. One-time part of the Soviet Union it came under the governance of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively during that time while retaining its independence. In 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union it became part of Uzbekistan and adopted its own constitution in 1993. While remaining part of Uzbekistan it retains its own government, judiciary and language. Karkalpak, Uzbek and Russian are the main languages spoken in the region.
Uzbekistan is a huge country. Moynaq can be reached by taking a short internal flight from Tashkent to Nukus, the capital of Karkalpakstan, and then taking a taxi from there. The journey can also be done by a series of trains, buses and taxis.
Moynaq is pretty much one big long wide street lined with a mixture of strangely empty newly built modern buildings and older residential dwellings some of which were really basic and others less so. It bears all the signs of a sleepy forgotten place. During the summer temperatures can reach beyond 40 degrees Celsius.
Because the soil is so dry workers water the grass verges during the day and dust rises off the roads with each passing car or bicycle. The aesthetic of Moynaq is really striking. Its desolate and curious, brightly coloured in some ways and banal in others, the combination of which evokes feelings of a town the sea forgot.
Turning off the main street on to what would have been the coast road, until the sea started to retreat, you see it disappear off into the endless desert. There is a nostalgic looking lighthouse café and a small art museum where the promenade would have been. The Aral Sea Memorial statue is really striking. Shaped like a 3D isosceles triangle the large white concrete monument stands on the highest point of the dunes that used to overlook the sea. Below this the former seabed is littered with rusting skeletons of ships and boats. This is the area known as the Ship Graveyard.
While photographing the Ship Graveyard we got talking to an Egyptian guy who worked for the UN and later to an English guy who was working for an engineering company on the Aral Seabed. Both told us there was little or no hope of the sea ever returning and that the aim now was to try to encourage forestation where the sea used to be. Oil and gas companies have also begun drilling in the sea, made easier by the lack of water. The UN Aral Sea Programme aims to improve the livelihoods of population living in affected areas by working with local communities to improve access to basic infrastructure, clean water and gas and primary healthcare facilities. They have begun planting ‘one million trees’ and salt-retaining plants on the Aral seabed. All hope of the sea returning to the shores of Moynaq seem to have dissipated.
I visited the area while attending Sthia Festival, a free techno party in the desert. The absolute uniqueness of this event is what drew me to it. The fact that this festival has the dual purpose of raising awareness of this manmade environmental disaster while bringing people and music together that wouldn’t normally experience each other really appeals to me. I also love the fact that it’s a free festival. Its accessible and reaches out to all. Locals are employed throughout the build and the festival itself brings a lot of money into the area. It is scheduled to go ahead again in September 2020.
To make the 150km trip from Moynaq to the retreating shores of the Aral Sea is much cheaper if arranged while in Moynaq. Booking online through tour companies is insanely expensive, but people we met got a lift out to the shore for $25 per person from a local former fisherman. It helps if you speak Russian or Uzbek as English is not widely spoken in the area. There are no ATMs in the town and very few that take foreign cards in Nukus so make sure to bring cash.
Words: Freda Hughes