Once the world's fourth largest inland sea, covering 68,000 km2, the Aral Sea has receded steadily since the 1960s―as water from the two rivers that feed it, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, was extracted to feed massive irrigation schemes. By 2007, it had declined to 10% of its original size and split into three lakes: the Northern Aral Sea, and the eastern and western basins of the previously larger Southern Aral Sea. By 2009, however, the south-eastern lake had disappeared and the south-western lake retreated to a thin strip at the extreme west. While Kazakh and international efforts to dam, stabilize and gradually replenish the Northern Aral Sea have achieved some results, the damage to the Southern Aral Sea appears irreversible and its prospects remain bleak.
Karakalpakstan’s formerly flourishing fishing industry centered in Moynaq, 200 kms northwest of Nukus, has been destroyed. The entire area is heavily polluted with consequent public health problems and some believe that the sea’s retreat is making summers hotter and drier and winters colder and longer. Meanwhile, the sea’s disappearance has left behind a dried up harbor at Moynaq, including the rusting carcasses of fishing trawlers in the sand, so-called ship cemeteries.
While a trip to Moynaq―and, onwards, to what remains of the Aral Sea―may not be for the average tourist, there is increasing interest to see with one’s own eyes the environmental damage and legacy of Soviet era mass irrigation of cotton, still one of Uzbekistan’s largest exports.