By PETER LEONARD
Associated Press Writer
AKESPE, Kazakhstan—Standing on the shore under the relentless Central Asian sun, Badarkhan Prikeyev drew on a cigarette and squinted into the distance as one fishing boat after another returned with the day's catch.
Until recently, this spot where the fish merchant was standing, in a man-made desert at the edge of nowhere, represented one of the world's worst environmental calamities.
Now fresh water was lapping at his boots, proclaiming an environmental miracle—the return of the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea was once the world's fourth-largest body of fresh water, covering an area the size of Ireland. But then the nations around it became part of the Soviet Union. With their passion for planned economics and giant, nature-reversing projects, the communists diverted the rivers that fed the inland sea and used them to irrigate vast cotton fields. The result: The Aral shrank by 90 percent to a string of isolated stretches of water.
The catastrophe "is unprecedented in modern times," says Philip Micklin, a geography professor at Western Michigan University who has studied the Aral Sea for years.
And even now, nearly two decades after the Soviet Union broke up, the damage is far from reversed. Satellite images taken earlier this year show that one section of the sea has shrunk by 80 percent in the last three years alone. Uzbekistan, which controls three-quarters of the Aral Sea, has given up trying. The rescue has happened on Kazakhstan's portion, and it is striking.
Aralsk is a port that ended up 100 kilometers (60 miles) inland. But now, a dam built by the World Bank and Kazakh government is slowly resurrecting a small part of the sea, reviving the fishing industry and bringing hope to an area that some expected would simply dry up and blow away in the fierce, salty winds.
The returning water has crept to within 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of Aralsk, also known as Aral, and the World Bank reckons it could reach the port in about six years.
Kazakhs can hardly wait. "Good News—The Sea is Coming Back," declares a sign at the entrance to Aralsk.
In some areas, the water is already lapping at the derelict hulls of ships that were stranded deep inland, heightening the ghostly and surreal aura of the landscape.
"Finally, there is hope and a life to be made here." said Prikeyev, 49, waiting for his fishermen near the village of Akespe, 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Aralsk. "Work is available for anyone who wants it."
This summer his boats returned laden with heaving sacks of pike and carp.
The miracle is a small one compared with the damage that will probably never be undone. Uzbekistan has chosen to keep the lucrative cotton industry going, and to prospect for gas and oil under the exposed seabed.
But where the sea is being saved, the solution has proved elegantly simple.
The $88 million project launched in 2001 resulted in a dam to channel the precious waters of the Syr Darya river into the Kazakh section, rather than let them flow south and go to waste.
The five states of former Soviet Central Asia are in broad agreement about the need to coordinate use of the region's two life-giving rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In practice, however, little concrete collaboration has been achieved, meaning certain death for large part of the sea.
The centerpiece of the Aral salvation project is the concrete Kokaral dam. It's an unremarkable-looking structure that can be walked across in less than a minute, but its impact has been dramatic.
The rising water level has noticeably cooled the climate and lowered salinity sufficiently to sustain freshwater fish.
According to the World Bank, the catch of freshwater fish reached around 2,000 tons in 2007, up from just 52 tons in 2004.
For the first time in years, many Kazakhs living near the Aral Sea feel they have a future.
"My father grew up in a fishing village and catching fish is what he did all his life," said Prikeyev, who oversees a crew of more than 100 fishermen and others during high season in summer.
After the sea began to dry up in the 1960s, Aral villages withered as people migrated to the cities for jobs. The surrounding region became a searing dust bowl and fishing, one the few sources of steady employment, collapsed. Prikeyev tried running a chain of small shops, failed and went back to fishing, only to find the fish disappearing.