Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the Aral Sea supported a thriving fishing industry. Decades ago, however, the sea began to shrink. Its decline created one of the worst ecological catastrophes on Earth, and resulted in serious economic and social consequences.
In 2003 the Kazakh government, with help from the World Bank, began a massive restoration project to raise the water level of the dying sea. As VOA's Valer Gergely reports from Kazakhstan, the $87 million effort seems to be paying off.

The scene may bring to mind a biblical image, Noah's Ark. But the sight of roving animals and the skeletons of sunken vessels exposed by the receding sea has a very different history. Several ships lie in this "ship graveyard" ? as former fishermen call it, the "ship of the desert" and its seagoing cousins. A few years ago 13 vessels were buried in the sand. Only six remain, as residents of nearby villages dismantle them to sell the scrap metal to China.

The Aral Sea was once so bountiful in fish, that in 1921 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, urged the fishermen of the Aral to provide fish to the Russian people to ease their famine. In the 1960s, however, as Soviet planners diverted two main rivers that fed the sea, the Amu Darya and Sir Darya, to irrigate agricultural lands, the water level dropped dramatically.

Seventy-year-old former fisherman, Zeynesh Zhumagaliev remembers the days of this tragic transformation.  "The sea started to shrink at the beginning of the sixties.  Living conditions of the local people became very poor.  They were very sad about it."

The sea lost billions of cubic meters of water. It now contains only an estimated 10 percent of its original volume. The inland sea, which was once the fourth largest lake on Earth, split into two separate bodies of water. The lower water level led to an increase in salinity, killing the sea's fish. Crops in the region were destroyed by toxic salt. The ecological disaster brought climate change and disease.

In 1960 Aralsk had a bustling harbor and a productive fishing industry on the Aral. The port today is very differrent. Residents say it has been almost 30 years since they could see the shoreline. Now they have to drive 100 kilometers south along bumpy dirt tracks to find it. As the Aral disappeared, Aralsk became a town of crumbling factories. The region's unemployment rate is still one of the highest in Kazakhstan.

To stabilize the environment and improve the economy, Central Asian states have requested foreign assistance. With the help of a World Bank loan, Kazakhstan began building a dike to save the northern part of the Aral Sea.

Naymadin Musabaev, mayor of the Aral region says, while the waters of the southern part continue to shrink, the Northern Aral has been steadily rising. "This dam separates the Northern and Southern Aral Sea."

The reappearance of fishing boats is a sign of change. Dosim Kulmanov, his brother Adai, and ten other villagers formed a fishing cooperative four years ago, after the completion of the dike.

"A fisherman's life is very hard. We get up very early in the morning and spend the day on the water. This is our life year round. But the fish provide us a steady income,? says Kulmanov.

Now 50 families in their village rely on fishing. Kulmanov is optimistic about the future.

"Old fishermen were left without an income after the water disappeared. Some of them moved to other parts of Kazakhstan, but now, their children are fishing. I think that the living conditions of the fishermen are good now."

Musabaev says the Kazakh government has already begun preparations for the second phase of the project to build another dam. "In the second phase we will improve the water management system that will return the water to its original boarders, close to the city," said the mayor.

An estimated 40 percent of the water has already returned to the northern part. With increased freshwater flow, the Northern Aral's salinity has improved and several species of fish have appeared.  

"Now we catch carp, catfish, pike, sturgeon and perch,? says Kulmanov. ?The buyers come by trucks from various parts of Kazakhstan, mainly from the south. The profit from the fish is not bad."

"After completion of the dam in 2005 we caught almost 600 tons of fish. Last year the fish harvest was ten times higher," boasted the mayor.

The increased variety of fish is the result of foreign assistance. With U.S. and Israeli aid they rebuilt a fish hatchery and processing facility in 2002. "Investors are already interested in building three new processing plants. The construction will start soon," said Musabaev.

He adds, an estimated 1 million people, who live mainly in the poorest regions of Kazakhstan, will benefit from the project. "After the first phase was finished people started to believe in the future of the Northern Aral."

Zhumagaliev hopes that one day some of his 21 grandchildren will follow the dream of his youth, and have a chance to join the Kulmanov brothers and other villagers who have already returned to the Aral Sea.