Once, the Aral Sea provided fish for the Karakalpak people of Uzbekistan. Today, it has dwindled to a mere 10 percent of its old size. Toxic chemicals in the sea bed, now exposed, have endangered human health. But saxaul trees could prevent wind from carrying contaminated sand into the air. Forestation specialist Orazbay Allanazarov told the BBC, “One fully grown saxaul tree can fix up to 10 tonnes of soil around its roots.” The plan is to cover the whole dried sea bed — millions of hectares — with trees.

Old rusted ships on the dried up Aral Sea

The Aral Sea began withering away in the 1960s as the Soviets diverted water for cotton fields from two main rivers flowing into the sea. As the volume of water in the sea slumped, the concentration of salt increased and poisoned fish. Almas Tolvashev, a former fisherman, told the BBC, “There were 250 ships here. I used to catch 600 to 700 kilos of fish every day. Now there is no sea.”

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And it wasn’t just the loss of fish that caused issues. Pesticides and herbicides from cotton plantations ended up in the sea. When it went dry, sandstorms picked up the toxic chemicals exposed on the sea bed and humans inhaled them — with dire consequences. The BBC pointed to one study that discovered the incidents of liver cancer doubled from 1981 to 1991. Locals experienced reduced fertility, stunted growth, elevated rates of cancer and heart and lung problems. Authorities didn’t acknowledge the Aral Sea’s disappearance until after the Soviet Union’s fall.

Saxaul trees, a shrub-like tree native to central Asia’s deserts, are able to survive in salty, dry soil, and they could offer an answer. Workers have covered around half a million hectares of the desert with the trees — but there are more than three million hectares to go. The BBC said it could take 150 years to cultivate a forest at the current pace, but there’s hope the trees could improve quality of life for the Karakalpak people.

“We are slow,” Allanazarov said. “We need to speed up the process. But for this we need more money, more foreign investment.”

Via the BBC

Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)