7 July 2018

Mo‘ynaq – Graveyard of Ships in the Desert

Many have visited an abandoned city and wondered what catastrophic event could have caused such an exodus from a metropolis once so evidently thriving. Yet these cities are usually hundreds if not thousands of years old, the everyday clamor and cry of civilization just an echo. Visit Mo'ynaq in Uzbekistan, however, and you can see apocalypse right here, right now.

The Soviet era sign still welcomes people to the city. Yet there are few visitors who stay more than a few hours. They all leave after they have done looking at what is reminiscent of a scene from a science fiction disaster movie - big ships adrift in the desert.

If this was a Steven Spielberg movie the question would be how did they get here? This is real life, however. The only question is what on earth happened?

The city has seen a precipitous decline in its population since the 1980s. The problem? Mo'ynaq is a port – or at least it was.  The sea is now 150km (almost a hundred miles) away from the point at which it used to lap up against the city’s harbor. The remnants of the cataclysm are everywhere in the form of the corroded hulks of fishing ships.

Amid the miles and miles of sand and scrub, these vessels sit; isolated, stranded, rusting and supremely out of place, these are shells from which the sound of the sea refuses to make passage.  They make an unlikely playground for local children although one can only ponder that the cooling dip in to the sea’s blue waters that their fathers enjoyed would be of more benefit to them. Do they realize that they would have been fishermen?

The city of Mo'ynaq (the only port in the otherwise land-locked country of Uzbekistan) bordered the Aral Sea, in reality an inland lake albeit the fourth largest in the world. It shared the sea with its neighbor, Kazakhstan, and both countries were under the auspices of the USSR for the best part of a century.  Irrigation projects by the soviets beginning in the 1960s saw the sea decline to only ten percent of its original size by the middle of the first decade of the twenty first century.

The water had been drained off the Aral Sea’s tributaries to support the country’s fast growing cotton industry. The less water there was the easier it was for the sun to evaporate it and the shoreline began to recede – and recede further each year. This shrinkage combined with the chemical runoff from the cotton industry wreaked havoc on the fish in the sea. Yet nothing was done.

The city, with a population in the tens of thousands, had relied on fishing the sea to maintain its economy. It had developed as a major center for fishing and canning yet as the sea declined overfishing became the norm, exacerbating the problem. The canning factory is still there, its gates firmly closed. The only fishermen in town now are on posters not ships.

Then people started dying too – in large numbers. Dust storms from the desiccated and disastrously polluted area that had once been the sea bed poisoned the lungs of the inhabitants. Faced with the prospect of no employment and a severely curtailed lifespan most people who could upped and left.

Some still remain: the Karakalpak people have lived in the area for over a thousand years. Yet now they must suffer hotter summers and colder winters - another byproduct of this environmental disaster. When it snows in the winter the ships look more ghostly than ever. There is some disaster tourism which brings in a little money and there is little to do but this. Yet the population is made up mostly of the very old who look after the very young – parents often leave to seek work elsewhere to send money back to support the family.

The children who tag along with the tourists are, perhaps, blithely unaware that theirs may will be the last generation to live in this barren place which once sustained so many tens of thousands. It is a harsh lesson that they will have to learn on a very personal level.

You have to wonder if the punishment on the rest of the world has to be as harsh before we sit up and take notice of what we are doing to our environment. After all, if you call Earth Planet A, then one thing is for sure – there is certainly no Planet B. We just don't seem to have figured that out yet.

First Image Credit Flickr User Soyignatius