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Central Asia: Photographer Offers Window On A 'Dying Sea'

The former Aral Sea seabed (copyright Radek (Courtesy Photo) April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Czech-born photographer Radek Skrivanek escaped Soviet clutches in 1987, when he fled his homeland for Austria and eventually the United States. But he has refused to turn his back on the tragic aspects of the Soviet legacy. Skrivanek's attention for the past two years has been focused on this series of black-and-white photos that he calls "The Aral Tengizi, Story Of A Dying Sea." RFE/RL asked him about what he set out to document.

RFE/RL: Why did you decide to take pictures of the Aral Sea?

Radek Srkivanek: I was born and raised in Eastern Europe under the same communist regime that governed over the then-Soviet Central Asia -- where the Aral Sea lies -- although the regimes in Eastern Europe always had a bit more of a "human face" than the one in the USSR. I think I have a unique perspective on the plight of the people in the Aral Sea region. I have always known -- was taught at school -- about the bold and monumental projects that the USSR was undertaking, whether to improve the lives of its citizens or to gain international prestige. These projects, when failed, were equally monumental in their consequences; and the effects of these failures will linger for decades or centuries to come.

I also think that the issues of water -- quality or simply availability of it -- will be [a problem] that the world will be faced with in this century. The Aral Sea disaster is the largest man-made catastrophe, the most unreported in the media. And I think that in many ways the images I share with you could be a preview of things that the future holds for us all.

RFE/RL: How much time did you spend there?

Skrivanek: The Aral Sea's watershed stretches across a large part of the Asian continent. In my project, I decided to loosely follow this water on its journey from its source [among] the glaciers of the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains down to the immense Central Asian steppe, through the agricultural areas and on towards the sea. I usually travel for four to six weeks at a time, covering certain portions in various seasons. So far, I have visited the Aral Sea on three occasions and was able to explore some of the areas once covered by the sea's water. I have also visited the agricultural regions at the time of cotton harvest, as well as the cascade of dams constructed upstream on the rivers supplying water to the Aral Sea.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the situation there?

Skrivanek: It is a complex problem, and no single event or person is responsible. It all started, as many other enterprises do, with good intentions: to create jobs, provide income, to put bread on the table of fellow citizens, to use the available natural resources for some visible benefit...

The Aral Sea is technically a lake, a large body of water comparable in size to Lake Superior (which has a surface area of more than 80,000 square kilometers). It is completely landlocked in the midst of the Asian continent. There is strong evidence that the Aral Sea fluctuated in size throughout prehistory and antiquity. Various geological and other forces of nature played a part in this process over many millennia. The present recession of the sea is caused by man alone, and in just a few decades.

Water from the Aral Sea is supplied by two major rivers of this region, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. These two rivers were heavily tapped for water to supply the irrigation schemes producing rice and cotton that were to turn Central Asia into an agricultural giant, feeding and clothing the Soviet empire. The growing demand for water had strangled the sea's water supply. In fact, the Amu Darya, for the most part, no longer reaches the sea. At the height of the irrigation season, the Syr Darya, near its delta, is said to flow backwards. In addition to the agricultural use of the water, upstream countries are using the water to generate electricity to fuel their economies. Cascades of dams are collecting the water from the summer thaw, holding it until the winter, when electricity is most needed, and [then] releasing it well before the growing season starts in the downstream countries.

The break-up of the Soviet Union actually further complicated the situation because as the central authority disintegrated, five independent states struggled to survive and to rebuild their shattered economies. Water is used as a bargaining chip. The Aral Sea disaster is the largest man-made catastrophe on earth, in the making for four decades. I see the Aral Sea disaster as a perfect metaphor for the struggle of men against nature.

RFE/RL: You said that the fate of the sea is a metaphor of our attitudes toward the environment and the conflict between man and nature. Could you elaborate?

Skrivanek: One of the photographs in this selection is a two-panel panorama of a mural displayed in the waiting room of a train station. This mural commemorates arguably the brightest moment in the existence of the city of Aralsk (the largest port on the Aral Sea). In the early 1920s, there was a famine in Russia, and the fishermen of the Aral Sea rose to the occasion and sent a train filled with fish to help the starving. As a gesture of gratitude, Lenin himself wrote a letter of thanks to the town for their effort. The reading of this letter to town's people is depicted in the mural.

Some 30 years later, the same government has sent engineers who built the canals that killed the sea where the fish came from. It is as if we believe that our sole purpose here is to figure out some new rocket that will help us to benefit from the world around us. Such ideas are pitching us into a conflict with nature, which we feel compelled to alter, control, or manage for the greater good. I fear that in this struggle, we are often shortsighted and ultimately we will be the casualties.

RFE/RL: Did you see any signs that the sea is recovering?

Srkivanek: I don't think that rebirth or recovery is something that is happening at all. The cultivation of cotton and rice continues, and new dams are constructed upstream. In the southern region of the former sea, oil reserves have been found and are currently being exploited, which pretty much kills any real attempt for reviving the sea in the future. Most of the conservation efforts are limited to the flooding of areas near populated centers in an attempt to moderate the local climate. A much-publicized effort in the northern region of the sea may result in the creation of a lake perhaps 1/8 the size of the former sea, with questionable ability to sustain the native species of fish. This effort is more like putting bandages on sores rather than treating the disease.

RFE/RL: You met some of the people who are living by the sea. How have their lives changed as a result of the demise of the sea? As a result, many have obviously lost their source of income.

Skrivanek: The obvious and immediate losses were the complete disintegration of industries tied up to the very existence of the sea -- such as fishing, shipping, canneries, etc. -- together with income for the people who live on the former shores of the sea. The more profound losses may, however, be the change in the climate caused by the absence of the sea, which used to cool the local climate during summer and keep temperatures mild in the winter. Now both seasons are longer, with more extreme temperatures, threatening the cultivation of the very crops that caused the problem in the first place.

Another potentially catastrophic aspect of the desertification of the Aral Sea is the fact that agricultural fertilizers and defoliants that were washed into the sea over the many decades of intensive agriculture in the Aral Sea basin and watershed are now left behind by the receding sea. Together with salt, they are stirred up into the air by wind and become toxic dust storms [that are] driven through the region and pose serious health hazards for the population and contaminate soil regionally.

RFE/RL: What did they tell you about the situation of the sea? Do they remember the good days of the sea?

Skrivanek: There is no one left who remembers the days when the fishing fleet was sailing the sea and cargo moved between its two major ports. Most people who worked as fisherman or sailors left shortly after the industries perished. Today they are most likely retired somewhere in Russia or dead. People do remember the sea, though. You often meet residents who tell you that in the summer of 1980 they used to swim right on the town's beach. And today the beach is nothing but a stretch of sand on the edge of the dry harbor littered with the rusting hulls of ships.

RFE/RL: What are the hopes of the residents for the future?

Skrivanek: There is a certain finality about the fact that life as it once existed on the shores of the Aral Sea will never exist again. There is not much to return to, much less to resume. I was always struck by the irony that while children walk past rusting ships, most of them have never seen the sea, which once was in the center of their town. Now, their families cannot afford the cost of the 60-mile trip to visit the current shoreline, certainly not for the simple pleasure of it.

RFE/RL: Your work is currently being exhibited at the Peer Gallery in New York. Are you also planning to display your photos in the Aral Sea region?

Srkivanek: Yes, the work is currently on display at the Peer Gallery in New York, until May 12. It is part of a show curated by John Bennette called "After." The show explores the aftermath of such events as the demise of the Aral Sea or the events that happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is a three-person show and includes work by Wyatt Gallery and Will Steacy.

The photographs will also be exhibited as a part of the ULISphotoFEST in Istanbul. That will be later on this spring. Their central theme this year will be water and issues relating to it.

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