Restoring life to the Aral Sea’s dead zone

Graveyard of ships, Moynaq, Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionThe town of Moynaq was once Uzbekistan’s main fishing port on the Aral Sea

The loss of the Aral Sea in central Asia is an ecological disaster. Toxic chemicals in the exposed sea bed have caused widespread health problems. Can an ambitious project to plant millions of trees save the Karakalpak people of Uzbekistan?

Seventy-eight-year-old Almas Tolvashev shuffles through the sand towards the rusting hulk of a fishing boat.

The lighthouse that keeps watch over a crumbling flotilla of 10 or so ships is a stark reminder that Moynaq was once a thriving fishing port on the Aral Sea.

“The history of the Karakalpak people starts with the sea,” says the former fisherman. “Fishing was the first thing fathers taught their sons”.

Moynaq lies at the heart of Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. In its heyday, this is where 98% of Uzbekistan’s fish came from.

Seventy-eight-year-old former fishing captain Almas Tolvashev with his grand-daughter by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionSeventy-eight-year-old former fisherman Almas Tolvashev sits with his grand-daughter

“I was the first Muslim captain in Moynaq and my ship was the Volga. Captains were usually ethnic Russians,” Almas says proudly.

“There were 250 ships here. I used to catch 600-700 kilos of fish every day. Now there is no sea”.

The Aral Sea started to shrink in the 1960s when the Soviets diverted water from the two main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea to feed vast new cotton fields.

As cotton production boomed, the Kremlin refused to acknowledge the problem. Locals had to put labelled sticks in the ground to prove the shoreline was disappearing.

Graveyard of ships, Moynaq, Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionMoynaq’s old shoreline is now a graveyard of old fishing ships

As the volume of water decreased, the concentration of salt increased, poisoning everything in the sea.

“Fish stocks went down and in the end all we caught were dead fish. Now young people have to leave for other countries in search of jobs”.

The Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former size – an area of water as big as Ireland has been lost. But it’s not just a way of life that has been affected.

The captain waves his hands above his head: “It’s not like before, the weather is bad, there’s all this dust in the air”.

Lives in danger

When Dr Yuldashbay Dosimov first came to work at Moynaq’s hospital in the 1980s the shoreline was already 20km (12 miles) away.

He remembers the illnesses that were specific to the region: “Respiratory problems, tuberculosis and kidney problems were widespread. Until recently, many children died of diarrhoea”.

The Soviet authorities who expanded Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s cotton industry did not foresee that herbicides and pesticides from their new plantations would run off into the rivers around them and end up in the Aral Sea.

Graveyard of ships, Moynaq, Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionThe Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former size

Contaminated drinking water caused many problems and these were exacerbated when the water retreated.

As the sea dried up, toxic chemicals from the cotton industry were left exposed on the sea bed. These were carried through the atmosphere by sandstorms and inhaled by people across a vast area.

Locals experienced a swathe of health issues ranging from stunted growth, reduced fertility, lung and heart problems to increased rates of cancer. For example, one study concluded the occurrence of liver cancer doubled between 1981 and 1991.

Another investigation found that by the end of the late 1990s infant mortality was between 60 - 110 out of 1,000 births, a number much higher than the rest of Uzbekistan (48 per 1,000) and Russia (24 per 1,000).

Graveyard of ships, Moynaq, Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionHerbicides and pesticides from Uzbekistan’s cotton fields have been left exposed on the former sea bed

For decades, these illnesses were an open secret. The authorities only acknowledged the disappearance of the Aral Sea after the fall of the Soviet Union.

When they identified the problem, they started work on a solution. And it’s a solution that Dr Dosimov hopes will radically improve the wellbeing of the Karakalpak people.

“They have to lessen the impact of the dried up sea on people’s health and that’s why they are planting saxaul trees”.

Sea bed forest

Several miles from Moynaq two tractors are inching across the horizon side-by-side. They are scratching long lines into the salty sea bed that 40 years ago would have been 25m (80ft) underwater.

Saxaul trees on the Aral Sea bed in Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionThe government hopes millions of saxaul trees can stop toxic chemicals being spread in the atmosphere

On the back of each tractor, a young man grabs a handful of seeds and feeds it into the thin trench.

“No matter if it rains or shines, we have two weeks to plant a hectare (2.4 acres),” says one of the men. “It’s been cold and rainy lately, but we won’t leave until we reach our goal”.

The men are sowing saxaul seeds. The saxaul is a shrub-like tree native to the deserts of central Asia, and now the first line of defence against climate change in Uzbekistan.

“One fully grown saxaul tree can fix up to 10 tonnes of soil around its roots,” explains Orazbay Allanazarov, a forestation specialist.

The trees stop the wind picking up contaminated sand from the dried up sea bed and spreading them through the atmosphere. The plan is to cover the entire former bed with a forest.

Orazbay Allanazarov, by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionOrazbay Allanazarov believes the humble saxaul tree can help the Karakalpak people of Uzbekistan.

“Here almost one in two trees has survived. This is good.” He doesn’t hide his excitement as he strokes the branch of one white-grey shrub that stands two and a half metres high. It’s a long term project – this row of saxauls was planted five years ago.

“We chose saxaul trees because they can survive in the dry and salty soil,” he says.

Long-term project

The trees are planted in rows, 10m apart, so that when they mature and release seeds of their own, the gaps between the rows will be populated too.

Until now around half a million hectares of the desert have been covered with saxaul trees. But there are still more than three million hectares to be covered.

Planting saxaul trees on the Aral Sea bed in Uzbekistan by Paul Ivan Harris
Image captionPlanting saxaul trees on the Aral Sea bed is a long and slow process

At the current pace, it could take 150 years to grow a forest here.

“We are slow,” admits Allanazarov. “We need to speed up the process. But for this we need more money, more foreign investment”.

Like the seasoned fishing captain Almas Tolvashev, Orazbay Allanazarov knows the Aral Sea may never come back.

But at least now there is some hope that the Karakalpak people’s quality of life can be improved – a lifetime after a decision was made to choose cotton over fish.

Photography by Paul Ivan Harris. Editing by Derrick Evans

This BBC series was produced with funding from the Skoll Foundation

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The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style favoured by the West. What are the economics of such a change?

The Economics of Change

The change, announced on a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-February, was small but significant – and it elicited a big response.

“This one is more beautiful!” Asset Kaipiyev exclaims in surprise. The co-founder of a small restaurant in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Kaipiyev had just been shown the latest version of the new alphabet, approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev earlier in the day.

The government signed off on a new alphabet, based on a Latin script instead of Kazakhstan’s current use of Cyrillic, in October. But it has faced vocal criticism from the population – a rare occurrence in this nominally democratic country ruled by Nazarbayev’s iron fist for almost three decades.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

In this first version of the new alphabet,apostrophes were used to depict sounds specific to the Kazakh tongue, prompting critics to call it “ugly”.

The second variation, which Kaipiyev liked better, makes use of acute accents above the extra letters. So, for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan, which would in the first version have been Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy, is now Qazaqstan Respýblıkasy, removing the apostrophes.

“It is more beautiful than the former variant,” says Kaipiyev. “I don’t like the old one because it looks like a tadpole.”

Then it hit him. His restaurant, which opened in December, is called Sa’biz –spelt using the first version of the alphabet. All his marketing materials, the labelling on napkin holders and menus, and even the massive sign outside the building will have to be replaced.

In his attempt to get ahead by launching in the new alphabet, Kaipiyev had not predicted that the government would revise it. He thinks it will cost about $3,000 to change the spelling of the name on everything to the new version, Sábiz.

What Kaipiyev and other small business owners are going through will be happening at a larger scale as the government aims to transition fully to the Latin-based script by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal in a nation where the majority of the population are more fluent in Russian than in Kazakh.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Asset Kaipiyev, co-founder of Sa’biz, changed the spelling of his restaurant – now he has to change it again (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Mother tongue

According to the 2016 census, ethnic Kazakhs make up about two-thirds of the population, while ethnic Russians are about 20%. But years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the more than 18 million citizens are fluent in it. Kazakh fluency is at second place, at 74%.

Years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the population is fluent in it

Frequency of usage depends on the environment. In the Russian-influenced northern provinces and city centres, like Almaty and the capital Astana, Russian is used both on the street and in state offices. But in the south and west, Kazakh is more regularly used.

That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

The cost of change

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

According to state news media, the government has allocated roughly 300 million tenge each ($922,000) for 2018 and 2019; this money will go towards education in primary and secondary schools, says Eldar Madumarov, an economist and professor at KIMEP University in Almaty.

The government’s total budget for the seven-year transition will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge, or $664 million

Meanwhile, the translation of teaching kits and textbooks will begin this year, according to state media, while teachers nationwide will start teaching pre-school and first grade students the new alphabet in 2020, adding a grade each year until 2025, when all levels from pre-school to the final grade will have fully transitioned.

“BBC

There is also budget for developing a language converter IT program to recode Cyrillic script into Latin in the third quarter of 2018 (approximately $166,000), improving the qualifications of secondary school teachers ($33.2m), and hiring influential bloggers to push forward an awareness campaign for the final stage of the transition, beginning in 2024 ($1.4 million).

But without a clear breakdown provided by the government, some economists have found it difficult to properly assess the direct costs of this massive undertaking. (The ministries of foreign affairs, education, and culture did not respond to requests for comment and clarification.)

Hidden costs

The piecemeal reporting of how the transition will happen makes one economist worried about the unexpected costs.

“If this reform is not properly implemented, the risks are high that highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority, which includes also ethnic Kazakhs, may want to consider emigration,” says Madumarov. “The risks may be that some of their opportunities would be cut.”

If this reform is not properly implemented, highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority may want to consider emigration – Eldar Madumarov

In late February, the extent of the issue was on display when Nazarbayev – who is comfortably bilingual – ordered that all cabinet meetings be held in Kazakh. Since Russian has long been the lingua franca of state affairs, government officials’ command of Russian often surpasses their Kazakh. One meeting was broadcast over TV, and it showed officials struggling to express themselves. Some even opted to wear translation headsets.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

City librarians take a class on the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 21 February 2018 (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Bureaucratic characters

There’s also the cost of changing the language of government affairs. IDs, passports, printed laws and regulations – all the paperwork that governments need in order to function will have to be translated. While this has been reportedly part of the second and final stage of the transition, there has been no listed amount for this expense, says Kassymkhan Kapparov, director of the Almaty-based Bureau for Economic Research of Kazakhstan.

For things like passports and IDs, there is already a fixed fee to renew, “so the only thing that would change is that the letters would just change in the software,” Kapparov says, adding that a new passport costs roughly $60 while an ID card is about $1.50. “The government left it blank. I think the logic is that it would not cost anything.”

But he remains most curious about the third stage, which reportedly begins in 2024 and includes the translation of internal business documents within the central and local state bodies, while state media would also need to implement the new alphabet.

“For the state’s own media to use the new alphabet, you have to train people first of all, then you have to change all the IT infrastructure to embed this script. And then you have to change all the planks [signboards] and the letterheads and stamps and signs,” he says. “For that, they didn’t provide the estimate… based on my estimates, it would be somewhere between 15 to 30 million [dollars].”

That number is only for the public sector, though. “For the private sector, of course they would have to do it themselves. It could be double, it could be ten times,” Kapparov says. “It depends on how hard the government goes about it, like would they require it to change in a single year? It’s possible. With our government, you never know.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

It will cost about $3,000 for Sa’biz restaurant to change the spelling of its name the new version, Sábiz (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Kapparov also worries that people, especially the older generation, would struggle to read and write in the new Latin script, so communications within the public sector may have to be in several languages at once.

“You can call it the language burden, because when you write a letter inside the public sector, you would have to write it in Russian, in Kazakh, and in Kazakh in the new script… and for that you would need to employ translators,” he says. “This creates additional costs and additional inefficiencies and of course the government doesn’t show it in their budget. But it will create an additional burden on the government.”

When it comes to direct costs, Kapparov is confident that his estimates – which he did in 2007 after the first feasibility study came out and again in January of this year when budgetary information started trickling out via state media – would not be more than $1bn for the entire transition.

But the director of Kazakhstan’s Centre for Macroeconomic Research, Olzhas Khudaibergenov, believes the whole transition will cost far less than Kapparov’s estimate. He thinks all paper documents costs will just be folded into the government’s usual budget. “Real expenses will be only for informational and explanatory programmes to support the transition.

“I estimate that the annual budget will not exceed two to three billion tenge [$6.1m-$9.2m] within 2018 to 2025.”

Economic benefits?

Kapparov says this alphabet transition is “hard to sell” for the government, and there won’t be a direct return on investment.

The alphabet change should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme – Kassymkhan Kapparov

Rather, it “should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme of the government,” he says.

Khudaibergenov agrees. “It is more a question of national identity which we are trying to find, and are ready to pay for that.”

KIMEP University professor Madumarov believes the economy could be slowed by political ramifications of the language change. While some have speculated that Nazarbayev’s decision to switch might signal cooling ties with Russia, the gradual shift to a Latin-script language could also weaken trade relations with post-Soviet countries.

Currently, up to 10% of the current trade flow between Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine can be explained by the convenience of a shared language, which in some ways translates to a shared culture and mentality, says Madumarov. This also means that Russian-speaking Kazakhs have more economic mobility between countries. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Georgia, nations that are not as fluent in Russian, have weaker trade links.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Russian is the language of choice in Kazakhstan’s cities, such as the capital Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Inversely, he says that the benefits to having a Latin-script alphabet means being better integrated with most of the Western world. As an example, Turkey, which switched to a Latin-based alphabet from its former Arabic script in 1928, has managed to form alliances with the European Union and was in negotiations – up until recently, when the government moved towards a more autocratic direction – to be a member.

Turkey has long been used as an example of how modernisation of the language and legal systems led to its position today as an economic power, says Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, a Berlin-based expert in Turkic languages and Turkic history. But she says this progress is due more to growing literacy and republic founder Ataturk’s firm grip over every aspect of society.

Turkey’s 1928 switch to a Latin script “was done in no time”, but back then, few Turks could read and write: Ataturk needed educated people for his country to be on the same level as Europe and the US, “and part of the education drive was the new alphabet”, she says.

An independent nation

Kazakhstan’s transition is more about setting itself apart from its Soviet past than literacy or economics, Kellner-Heinkele says. “It is a political argument to show that they are an independent state and they are modern and they are a nation.”

Fazylzhanova Muratkyzy, a linguist who worked with the government to create the new alphabet, echoes this assessment, and says many Kazakhs associate the Cyrillic-based script to Soviet control.

Young people, especially, are welcoming the change.

Based on surveys that her linguistic institute have conducted over the last decade, Muratkyzy says that 47% of the younger generation – aged 18 to 25 – supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016.

47% of the younger generation supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016

“It is the choice of the people, of the nation. And with this new alphabet, it is connected to our dreams and our future,” she says. “It shows that our independent history is finally beginning.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Head of national academics Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna discusses the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna, head of the National Academic Library, has been holding open classes for librarians and other interested parties to help them get used to the Latin script. She is optimistic the that young people especially will have no trouble learning the new script.

“Teachers would have to learn every day for one month. For children, it would only take 10 lessons, because children learn faster than adults.”

For Kaipiyev, the owner of Sa’biz, moving away from the Cyrillic script – no matter how tedious it is for him as a small business owner – is something he fully supports. “We want to connect with Europe and America, and with other foreign countries. This will help us turn the page to the next chapter,” he says.

As for changing his restaurant material to reflect the latest version of the alphabet?

“I think I will leave it the same for now,” Kaipiyev says, after a moment’s consideration. “We will change it when the people can actually read it.”

By Dene-Hern Chen 25 April 2018

Additional reporting by Makhabbat Kozhabergenova. Additional research by Miriam Quick.

Last of the wild asses back from the brink By Helen Briggs

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionKulans live in pairs or small herds

Wild asses are returning to the grasslands of Kazakhstan where they once roamed in large numbers.

The equine animals, known as kulans, are native to the area but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting and loss of habitat.

Conservationists have started reintroducing the horses to their natural landscape.

This month, more kulan were released in the Altyn Dala nature reserve to establish a fourth population.

The project is being organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK).

Sergey Sklyarenko said reintroduction started in a reserve on an island in the Aral Sea with fewer than 20 animals.

“We have got to now about 4,000 kulans in three wild populations,” he said.

“The creation of a fourth population will allow to provide new areas for the species and increase its sustainability.”

The wild asses were captured in the Altyn Emel National Park in the autumn.

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionThe kulans were released at a nature reserve in the centre of the country

The population there has reached about 3,000 individuals, but there is little potential for future growth.

The kulans were moved to a centre at Alytn Dala in Central Kazakhstan, where they were kept in captivity over the winter to allow them to bond and adjust to local conditions.

Mares have been fitted with GPS collars so that the movement of herds can be tracked.

The animals have already started exploring the area, and it is hoped that they will thrive and breed.

Asian wild ass once ranged across the Russian Federation, Mongolia, northern China, northwest India, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Today their main stronghold is southern Mongolia and China.

The Equus hemionus (Asian Wild Ass, Asiatic Wild Ass) is listed as Endangered, and considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Although they are a protected species, they are hunted for their meat and their skins in some areas

18 April 2018