Detroit and the Aral Sea

[I was going through some old drafts of posts-never-completed this morning and decided to delete the ones I’ll likely never complete. Others, like this one are parts of ideas or beginnings of drafts that never got finished but don’t deserve to be deleted because there is something there worth keeping. So I’ve decided to just post them as-is.]

A few weeks ago when we visited Detroit, all I could think about was the Aral Sea.

Why would a visit to the Motor City remind me of an inland sea on the other side of the planet? The association wasn’t logical—at least not based on any facts or statistics I can remember. It was more poetic—the affect that occurs when two different things are placed in the vicinity of one another evoking a sense of underlying connection. The Sea and The City were both next to one another in my head and I’ve been considering the resonances between them for the last few weeks. Their similarities in form betray the shaping of a common sculptor—similar global forces.

The Sea: Virtually there, virtually gone

I suppose I should start with an explanation of how the Aral Sea came to be in my head. If you aren’t familiar with your world geography, the Aral Sea is an inland sea that sits on the border of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. It was one of the largest lakes in the world, and is in that string that goes across central Asia—Black Sea, Caspian See, Aral Sea, Lake Bakal. I remembered it because I was particularly attentive in Mr. Degenaar’s geography class in seventh grade.

Sometime earlier this summer I came across an online article that described that the Aral Sea was disappearing. It was, I think from a British news website, and showed images of the lake’s shoreline shrinking over the past few decades. It also included captivating photos of large rusted out ships sitting in the middle of what looked like a desert.

I thought the whole thing was, frankly, a bit unbelievable.

I know I spend a lot of time doing my own research and traveling and teaching, but I’m a college professor. How could one of the largest lakes in the world be drying up and I’d only just heard of it?

So, I promptly looked up the Aral Sea on Google maps and was relived to see the little place marker appear smack dab in the middle of a field of blue. Perhaps the demise of the sea was just  being sensationalized by the media. The Aral Sea appeared to still be there.

Then I switched to the Google satellite view to zoom in for a closer look, and was unprepared to see the sea disappear—the majority of its former area swallowed up by yellow desert.

The blue map-sea that I initially took for the real thing was only virtually there—a vestigial ghost sea that lingers in the memory of the map-machine. Google can be forgiven, I suppose, because I had thought the Aral Sea was there too. I suppose most people, if they give the Sea any thought at all, just assume it must be there. The Rocky Mountains, the archipelago of Japan or the Nile. Kids grow up looking at globes and maps and learn to know the world by its mountains, lakes, deserts, rivers and seas. I mean, a friggin’ sea doesn’t just disappear—it is a feature of the natural landscape. Its fixed, its forever.

It turns out that the real Aral Sea has been slowly dying since the 1960s.

Over forty years ago, back when the Aral Sea was a huge lake which fed its region with fish and moderated local weather with moisture, the surrounding region was largely arid desert. Two rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which start in the high mountains of central Asia crossed the Kyzyl Kum desert to feed the Aral. The Sea, in other words, was the center—for thousands of years the center of water, transportation, food, and economic activity. Today things look quite different.

“That sea is no longer there.”

As part of a state-led agricultural project under the former Soviet Union the water supplies of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya were tapped for use in agriculture and their waters diverted into a vast irrigation system that spread out into the desert. The project brought water to the desert and the combination of heat, sun and water made for excellent growing conditions. Today, the waters of the two rivers hydrate a vast area of crops—wheat, barley, rice, maize, animal fodder and other crops.

State-led development built an infrastructure for the growth of agricultural markets in the desert. Now privatized, the crops in the desert grow on the legacy of that development project. The local river water now diverted from the Sea, inefficiently grows large amounts of cotton for sale on the world market. The population in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have moved into the irrigated areas and the dying Aral Sea—no longer at the Center—has become a forgotten wasteland.

Clearly the Soviet-era project is to blame for the diversion of water from the Aral Sea and its subsequent destruction. Reading more, however, I was struck by how, in spirit, the project appears to be to the California State Water Project—a project that brought agriculture to the desert through vast state-led development—most of which took place in the 1960s.

The transformation is dramatic and when I first read about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, I spent a whole night looking up articles and photos of it. I’d guess, however, that while the sea was disappearing most people—save for those on its shores—even knew the extent to which it was going. Oh they probably had a hunch that things were going down hill and that people were moving and that things were changing, but I’ll bet you they didn’t really get it until it was really gone.

The City: From the Center to the Periphery

Aral Sea Map

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