Aral Sea: Mistake Of NatureDeep within the bizarre confluence of ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of Central Asia lies a former Soviet republic called Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous enclave of Uzbekistan. This vast stretch of land was the site of one of the twentieth century's most horrific environmental disasters - the disappearance of the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water. Karakalpakstan bears the scars of the Aral catastrophe everywhere; the old seabed has turned into the world's youngest desert, the fishing industry collapsed devastating the local economy, farmers have seen their crops wither away, and the rate of respiratory diseases amongst the beleaguered population has spiralled.
But this isn't your typical tale of ecological mayhem. What's fascinating about Karakalpakstan is its political dynamic; long under the thumb of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, a nascent current of nationalism is slowly beginning to creep through the Karakalpak people, some of whom are beginning to demand outright independence from Tashkent. Those in Karakalpakstan that aren't choosing to resist the Karimov regime are by and large leaving en masse, escaping across the border to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Conservative estimates suggest 10% of the population has melted away in the past decade, with people exploiting the complex tangle of ethnic backgrounds in the region to gain citizenship elsewhere.
Commissioned by The National (UAE). Published in Internazionale (Italy), Prospect (UK), Geographical Magazine (UK), E-Magazine (USA), The Sunday Times Magazine (UK)