National Geographic : 2015 Jun
128 national geographic • June 2015 Finally a silvery line sparkles on the hori- zon, growing larger until we arrive at a Chinese encampment of several yurts set up on the edge of the sea. They are here to harvest Arte- mia parthenogenetica, a type of brine shrimp that is the only living creature left in the sea. When the Aral was healthy, the water was brackish, with a salinity level of 10 grams per liter (the world’s oceans range from 33 to 37 grams per liter). Today the salinity exceeds 110 grams per liter, making it deadly to every spe- cies of fish. Near the shoreline the muddy sand is wet, like a beach with an ebbing tide. But the Aral doesn’t have a perceptible tide—what we’re see- ing is the sea actually receding before our eyes. “ Whatever you do, don’t stop,” yells Kama- lov, as he plows through the knee-deep quick- sand, wearing only his underwear. I plod along behind until the water reaches my knees. I try to swim, but my legs float up to the surface, making it impossible to kick. “Just lie on your back,” says Kamalov. I do, and the sensation is like that of lying on a pool floaty. My head rests on a water pillow. I hardly break the surface. That night we camp on the plateau and cook dinner over an open fire built with dead saxaul branches. Sitting on a Persian carpet looking out over the sea, Kamalov pours shots of vodka. When the sea was healthy and fishermen plied its fertile waters, moisture evaporated off the lake each day. “Now instead of water vapor in the atmosphere, we have toxic dust,” says Kamalov, as he downs a shot with a grim set to his wizened face. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the five “Stans” have often found themselves with con- flicting agendas when managing their region’s most precious resource. Complicating matters, A villager in Aqbasty, Kazakhstan, bathes in an ancient hot spring piped into a bathhouse (above)— one of the few water sources left after decades of irrigation and evaporation. Aqbasty used to be on the shore of the Aral Sea. Today it’s seven miles inland. Muynoq, Uzbekistan (above right), is even less fortunate. With the sea receding and little vegetation to bind the soil, dust storms are common.