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In search of the missing sea

A dry bed scattered with shells and rusting ships is all that remains of a formerly bustling harbour in what was once the world's fourth-largest inland sea. The Soviet Union decided in 1918 that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, would be diverted to try to irrigate the surrounding desert. Cotton, the so-called 'white gold' of Central Asia, was seen as the future. By the 1960s the sea had begun to shrink, and within the space of a generation the water had receded over 100 kilometres. By 2004, the sea's surface area had shrunk to a quarter of its original size, and had even split in two, creating the small Aral and the large Aral. Poverty, malnutrition and drinking water contaminated by toxic sea salts and fertilisers have left local people vulnerable to disease. In Karalpakstan, the region of Uzbekistan surrounding the Aral, the incidence of bronchitis, cancers, liver and kidney diseases have risen by 30-40 times in the last twenty years.

But there is some hope for those whose lives are interlinked with the fate of the sea. The construction of a new dam and a series of dykes, completed in 2006, has already seen the waters of the small Aral begin to rise once
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