Less than a hundred years ago, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of approximately twenty-three thousand square miles. By 2007 it was only about 10% of its former size. Like many people, I knew nothing about it. I met Radek and his wife, photographer Vicki Topaz, at an art opening and learned a little about his work documenting this disaster. Contributing editor Anne Veh, knows them both. “You should talk with him,” she told me. I met Radek at his home in San Francisco and we talked as I looked through boxes of his photos shot from several trips there with his 4 x 5 camera.
Richard Whittaker: I didn’t know anything about the Aral Sea and what’s happened to it. Learning about its former size and what has happened to it is astonishing. And it’s disturbing.
Radek Skrivanek: Yes, in only 30 years the entire lake together with its water supply has disappeared. Two large rivers should be flowing into the sea, but they are not. Instead they irrigate vast areas throughout Central Asia, wherever cotton is grown. Today the Amu Darya, the larger of the two rivers, terminates maybe 200 miles from the former seashore.
RW: It just dries up?
RS: It just dries up. All along the course of both rivers, the water is pumped out and used in the fields, leaving just a trickle not strong enough to reach the sea. Once the rivers stopped flowing into the sea, it began to shrink. The pace has only accelerated over time and today the sea is gone for all practical purposes, and with it the way of life that existed around it. There used to be ports. There used to be a thriving fishing industry, and all of that has been lost. The ports were left behind by the retreating sea, and native fish can not live in the remaining lake because the salinity is just too high.
RW: There is still some water left?
RS: Yes. Let me show you. Over time the Aral Sea separated into two lakes. The smaller, northern part had been protected by a dike, the Kokaral Dam, constructed across the Straits of Berg. This small part is likely to survive into the future. The much larger portion south of this line will only collect seasonal water runoffs and is likely to further shrink and eventually disappear completely. You can clearly see it happening when you compare existing maps and current satellite images.
Here is a map that Alexey Butakov made in 1848 [pulls out a book]. He was the first navigator to actually sail the Aral Sea. He spent a year mapping the sea and measuring it and he published the account in the Royal Geographical Society Journal in 1856. He writes about what it looked like then. There were amazing numbers of birds; there were wild boars and even tigers that lived along the shores.
RS: Tigers, yes. Today it’s basically a wasteland, a salt-crusted plain with nothing alive on it—no fish in the water, no birds in the air, no anything.
RS: Yes, complete devastation.
RW: So the demise of the Aral Sea is one of the biggest environmental disasters.
RS: In my opinion there is no comparison. I mean events like Chernobyl are monstrous accidents that happened with horrible and lasting consequences, but the difference is that the Aral Sea disaster was completely planned and then executed. When the engineers were actually building the irrigation canals, they knew that this scheme was going to kill the sea. They still went ahead and did it. I first thought of the Aral Sea crisis as something inherent to Communism, because that’s how things were done then. I grew up in a Communist country, Czechoslovakia, and I have a pretty good understanding of how they went about governing.
RW: But instead?
RS: Instead we have to go back to the American Civil War, which in a strange and unintended way became a catalyst setting a course toward the current crisis. Because of the blockade of the southern ports, the world supply and trade in cotton was severely interrupted and that created a need for large-scale consumers of cotton like Russia to search for other sources.
RW: Oh, yes.
RS: Russians began looking to Central Asia, which was newly acquired territory for them. In the 1830s to 1850s or so, they fought several wars in Central Asia and eventually they conquered all of the independent khanates and acquired Central Asia for the Czar. They saw a potential to replace the imported cotton from the American South with domestically produced cotton. And that basically set the direction of agricultural development in Central Asia for the next 150 years.
They started to develop cotton fields and irrigation infrastructure. Then the October Revolution came in 1917. The Czar was ousted and eventually killed and Communists took over. They continued with the scheme, because they saw the potential for Central Asia to feed and clothe their empire. First slowly and then in the 1950s and ‘60s there was finally enough industrial might to create huge, huge canals to divert most of the water that both Amu Darya and Syr Darya carried.
The Karakum Canal actually takes water from Amu Darya at the border with Afghanistan all the way to Turkmenistan—to Ashgabat, the capital. It’s the longest irrigation canal in the world. It’s so large that ships can actually sail on it back and forth. It takes about one-quarter of the entire river flow and diverts it.
RS: I think the Russians or the Soviets always had an affinity for grandiose things. It’s interesting, too, because it’s always projects like this that, no matter which part of the world you live in, they’re always sold to us as something good. They will create jobs; they will provide food; and all that.
RW: That’s always the pitch, isn’t it?
RS: That’s always the pitch. Then 60 years later you realize the consequences and the price everybody is paying for that.
RW: It’s the same story with fracking and with the tar sands in Canada, and the pipeline. “It will create jobs.” So we must build it.
RS: I mean that, in itself, if you think about it, mining oil the way they do, it’s like an open pit. It’s just mind-boggling.
RW: I’ve seen photographs of it and it’s just monstrous.
RS: But let’s get back to the Aral Sea. So first there was the Czar and then the Communists. And in the 1990s when Communism fell, all of the Central Asian republics got their independence. And the first thing they did was to grow more cotton to support their failing economies.
Basically, this practice continues through three different forms of government. It leads me to conclude that this kind of thing has little to do with any particular form of government; rather it is just our human nature.
RW: That’s a sad observation. But I can’t argue with it.
RS: It seems that one thing we all have in common, transcending geographical and political boundaries, is our willingness to sacrifice so much for a small, short-term gain.
RW: And so you’ve gone back to the Aral Sea maybe five times; this speaks to you pretty strongly.
RS: I find the entire crisis to have almost fairy tale-like proportions—a lake that someone has taken away sounds very much like something from a scary children’s story. One of the interesting aspects for me is that today we expect some damage from mining and other industries with that kind of tradition. However I would never imagine that such tremendous destruction has its roots in something like agriculture, which sounds so innocent.
RW: That’s so true. That’s important to point out. You mentioned earlier that there were two rivers that fed the sea.
RS: The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, which is a little smaller. It’s the northern river. It faces the same problem, but the situation there is little better. The Syr Darya actually still feeds into the Aral Sea. Both of the rivers may be known from history under different names—the Amu Darya as the Oxus, and Syr Darya as the Jaxartes.
There is a dual use of the water in the Aral Sea basin. The Central Asian countries use the water mainly to grow cotton. But then also in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—which are high up in the mountains—the only energy resource is water and they use it to generate power. And that creates further stress on the water supply. Most of the water in these two rivers is supplied by glacial melt in the high mountains of Tian Shan and in the Pamir. That usually happens from May through July, and during this short window the upstream countries have to collect enough water to use for generation of electricity for the rest that year. So when the water is needed the most for growing of crops downstream, the upstream countries are hoarding it.
RW: And there’s the melting of glacial ice in the high mountains going on all over the world. It’s going to have incredible repercussions in downstreams all over the world. I think a great deal of India is supplied with the water from the Himalayas.
RS: Glaciers are kind of a great natural water reservoir. [I’m looking through Radek’s photos as we talk, and he comments] “This is the bottom of the sea that you’re looking at right there. The sign says, ‘Caution Wild Animals.’” That sign is about two hours by car into the dry seabed.
RW: Two hours.
RS: I was driving to one of the former islands. It’s basically a half-day trip. You’re driving through the middle of nowhere. It actually feels very much like sailing, because all around you the horizon is just flat—sand as far as you can see. It was a pretty amazing experience.
RW: And this photo? [large object sitting in the sand]
RS: That’s a buoy that would mark an entry into a port.
RW: When was that buoy last floating, would you say?
RS: Probably in the early 1970s. The ships, for instance, were abandoned in the late 1970s. They were trapped. They had absolutely nowhere to go, because the ports were getting shallower as the sea was drying up. The ships could no longer enter the ports, and also there were no more fish to catch. They were just abandoned, and the sea dried up underneath them. [looking at another photo] This is the sturgeon. It was one of the fish that naturally lived in the area, but it died off when the salinity rose.
RW: So as recently as 1970 a lot of the sea was still intact, then?
RS: Yes. In 1956 the Virgin Lands Campaign started. That was Khrushchev’s modernizing of Soviet agriculture. In Central Asia it meant that there was kind of a boom of the canal-building industry. It took a few years. Then in the mid ‘60s the levels had started dropping. I think by the late ‘70s the sea was basically dead. [I look at another photo] This is really an interesting picture. It’s a mural describing one of the most significant historical events in the town of Aralsk, which was the major port on the Aral Sea. In the 1920s there was a famine in Russia. So the fishermen of the Aral Sea sent fish to feed the starving Russians. Lenin himself wrote them a letter of thanks. Then 30 years later the same government sent the engineers who would dry up the sea where the fish had come from.
RW: There’s something very frightening about that, but you have to wake up a little even to feel that; otherwise one just goes along.
RS: [commenting on another photo] This is a dredging barge trapped in the channel it was trying to dig in order to connect the sea to the port. It couldn’t keep up with the pace of the receding sea.
Another interesting thing about the ships [looking at another photo] like this one here, for instance, is her name, Alexey Leonov
. Leonov was a Russian cosmonaut. Another ship was called Gagarin
who was, of course, the first man in space. They had all these names that project glory and promote patriotism and pride. Then they sit there in the desert, abandoned and dead. What a contrast, what a perspective!
RW: There’s a famous poem in English literature, “Ozymandias,” about this statue in the sand that has toppled over. There’s the head of the great king with the sands blowing across it.
RS: Same thing, yes.
RW: When you shoot these, it’s all done with a 4 x 5 camera?
RS: Yes. It’s a big production. Take five or six pictures, it’s a busy day.
RW: How did you get going in photography?
RS: I was always interested in painting and drawing, and arts in general. When I came to this country, I was in my mid-20s and I wanted to continue with that. I signed up to study at the Museum School in Boston and one day I found myself in the darkroom. Before I knew it, I just fell in love with it. It is magic, really.
RW: Yes, I understand. You have to have some patience to work with a 4 x 5.
RS: Yes, they say it is a more contemplative process. But for all its awkwardness, I find that people respond to a view camera differently than when you just have your little 35mm—I mean when you’re photographing with something that looks more like a piece of cabinetry. It’s wooden and it’s heavy and you’ve got to get under the black cloth, and all of that. So it’s a little bit of a show for everybody involved. People enjoy it and as a result you tend to be taken more seriously.
RW: [looking at another photo] Tell me something about this one.
RS: We are looking at the cliffs at the mouth of the Bay of Butakov. The water would reach somewhere there. The name Aral Sea, in local languages, means “sea of islands.” There were 1,200 to 1,500 little islands that were part of the Aral Sea. It’s interesting to consider what happened when the sea around these islands left. The islands kind of lost their significance. They just melted into the landscape and became nameless hills.
RS: [another photo] This is the remnant of a fish factory.
RW: Oh, my gosh.
RS: Let me see what else is in here. I was telling you about this island I was going to, Barsa-Kelmes, which in Kazakh means a place that if you go there, you will not return. This island had people living on it permanently. There were scientists studying the animals and plants. They created this little camp on the island, with perhaps half a dozen buildings. Then when the water dropped to the point where ships could no longer reach the island they all had to be evacuated, because there was no way to supply them. If there is three feet of water that is not enough for the ship to come. But it’s too much for a truck to come. So this is what’s left there.
RW: Wow. Knowing what I’m looking at, it’s powerful. What gave you the idea to go there in the first place?
RS: When I was growing up we were told at school about the Aral Sea and taught about these wonderful agricultural experiments the Soviet Union was doing. After the fall of Communism it came to light that all of these events had a flip side that was never really talked about. And one of those was the drying of the Aral Sea. So that was one of the reasons that drove me to go and explore this.
RW: So when you went to see the unspoken side of the story, did you have any particular feelings about that?
RS: I was very curious. While traveling around there, often the moments that had the greatest impact on me were moments that can not be captured by camera, for instance, finding yourself standing in the middle of the former seabed, stepping on little shells that are cracking under your feet and there is no sign of water anywhere, although there is a ship half buried in sand. You realize that where you are standing, you would have been under 60 feet of water just a few decades ago, but today there is not a drop. It’s as if you were bearing witness to a change of geological period or something as large and unfathomable. It leaves you feeling very small and insignificant. You think these kinds of changes happen over millions of years. But here people did it in 30 years. It’s just kind of mind-boggling the power that we have, and that we’re willing to use it this way.
RS: Another thing that’s sad is how the sales pitch for these projects always stresses the point that everybody is going to benefit. But, actually, here nobody benefits. The elite who run the cotton trade in Central Asia are the only ones who really benefit. Take Uzbekistan, for instance. Government gives quotas to various districts of how much cotton they are to deliver in the fall. It is local government’s job then to ensure quotas are delivered. Several times during the year, when a lot of labor is needed in the cotton fields, the schools in Uzbekistan basically get closed. Everybody, including teachers, gets sent off to the fields to work as laborers. So it’s almost like modern slavery that’s organized on a state level.
Patriotism and servitude are kind of equal in that sense, because it’s suggested that it is your patriotic duty to collect cotton for the country. That’s kind of how it is presented.
RW: How long were you there on your first visit?
RS: I was there for a month and a half.
RW: How has all this affected your view of things?
RS: Well, in some way I was very excited about just finding this as a subject to photograph, because I felt that it was important. And it was visually really very interesting. And I felt that I had a good shot at doing something with it. I grew up in Eastern Europe and I studied Russian in school, so I could speak to people there. In a way, it felt like so many things over my life kind of led up to this without me really knowing. I felt like I was at the right place at the right time. You know?
RW: Yes. I know that sense. And I take it there would be something about wanting to document this disaster because doesn’t one hope that it might help out a little bit?
RS: Yes. But it’s also something that one tells himself in order to be able to go and photograph something that is difficult to digest. I think that the first war that was ever photographed was the Crimean War in the 1830s. Conflicts have since been photographed pretty regularly and it has not stopped anyone from repeating such violence, except now we have a new profession—the war photographer. So I don’t know whether documenting something actually impacts the world in a positive way. I’m not really sure that’s the case. But it is the hope, I think, of everybody who goes out and photographs or writes or makes movies about these topics that are difficult to deal with.
RW: Well, yes.
RS: I was very emotional. For a while, you struggle with the idea, how is something like this possible? How could we allow this to happen? When I say “we,” I’m not talking about the Soviets or Czechs or Americans. I’m talking about we as people, being willing to sacrifice everything for some small gain—an entire ecosystem for a fortune in cotton, in the case of the Aral Sea.
RW: For short-term interests.
RS: You know, I think on some personal level you definitely reach a lot of people who would agree that it’s outrageous and that they had no idea about it. So in that sense you can feel that your work does have an impact. But I do not dare to hope that somehow it will change our behavior. You know? I mean, how do you feel about that?
RW: Well, I don’t think we really feel the reality of things. And how can one deal with that? I don’t know. On the other hand, over the last few years I’ve met a lot of younger people who seem to be moved in ways I don’t remember seeing before. It seems to me that there is something different going on.
RS: Yes. There is a shift. Yes.
RW: If I could hypothesize, I’d say there might be some sort of awakening happening in the younger people. Maybe there is
a shift in consciousness taking place.
RS: I think there is. We’ve been set on this path of mindless consumption, and I think we’re slowly realizing that we’re no longer capable of actually supporting that. We need to change. We need to readjust our values. The young people may have the advantage of being able to see that more clearly with fresh eyes.
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