The Boat Cemetery in Central Asia

Ryszard Kapucinski in his book Imperium writes:

Central Asia is deserts and more deserts, fields of brown weathered stones, the heat from the sun above, sandstorms.

But the world of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is different. Arable fields stretch along both rivers, abundant orchards; everywhere profusions of nut trees, apple trees, fig trees, palms, pomegranates…

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, as well as of their tributaries, allowed famous cities to arise and to flourish –Bukhara and Khiva, Kokand and Samarqand. This way, too, passed the loaded-down caravans of the Silk Road, thanks to which the markets of Venice and Florence, Nice and Seville, acquired their importance and color.

Brezhnev decided to turn all of Uzbekistan into one large cotton plantation. He wanted Uzbekistan to be a showpiece of Bolshevik ingenuity. Environmentalists are rightly angry about what has happened to the Aral Sea, and have spearheaded literally every plan to save it, but to blame it on global warming is not just incorrect, it’s a-historical. It’s like blaming the famine in the Ukraine in 1933 or the famine in Ireland in 1847 on a couple of years of bad crops. Yes, the powers that be may want you to think that, but those were man-made disasters, conscious and conniving. While perhaps (perhaps! I am not prepared to go that far!) the destruction of the Aral Sea was an unintended consequence of moronic agricultural planning, I do not let the powers-that-be off the hook.

Communism treated nature and the natural world as just another element of production, to be controlled, dominated, manipulated. So that is what Brezhnev set out to do in Uzbekistan: no longer would the people along the two rivers grow fruit, and figs and apples (things they could actually survive on). All of their orchards and green fields were appropriated by the Soviet state, and planted with cotton. The repercussions of this ill-thought-out move were (and are) apocalyptically disastrous.

Uzbekistan is not a natural for cotton plantations. It’s a desert. The people along the two great rivers lived in careful equilibrium with nature, growing things to support their communities, carefully handling the water supply, carefully monitoring how many people lived in each oasis … because oases are not meant to overflow with people. One too many camels, and suddenly your water supply dries up. Brezhnev bulldozed through Uzbekistan, upending all of the orchards, all of the fields, and forced everybody to plant cotton.

Kapuscinski describes this process:

First, bulldozers were brought in from all over the Imperium. The hot metal cockroaches crawled over the sandy plains. Starting from the banks of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, the steel rams began to carve deep ditches and fissures in the sand, into which the water from the rivers was then channeled. They had to dig an endless number of these ditches (and they are still digging them now), considering that the combined length of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is 3,662 kilometers! Then along those canals, the kolkhoz workers had to plant cotton. At first they planted upon desert barrens, but because there was still not enough of the white fibers, the authorities ordered that arable fields, gardens, and orchards be given over to cotton. It is easy to imagine the despair and terror of peasants from whom one takes the only thing they have — the currant bush, the apricot tree, the scrap of shade. In villages, cotton was now planted right up against the cottage windows, in former flower beds, in courtyards, near fences. It was planted instead of tomatoes and onions, instead of olives and watermelons. Over these villages drowning in cotton, planes and helicopters flew, dumping on them avalanches of artificial fertilizers, clouds of poisonous pesticides. People choked, they had nothing to breathe, went blind.

The rivers Amu and Syr Darya had been doing their thing for millennia. By diverting the waters of the rivers, by imposing an artificial restriction on them, the delicate balance of the desert land changed … and it changed rapidly.


The fields of rice and wheat, the green meadows, the stands of kale and paprika, the plantations of peaches and lemons, all vanished. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, cotton grew. Its fields, its white drowsy sea, stretched for tens, hundreds of kilometers.

Grigory Reznichenko wrote a book in 1989 called The Aral Catastrophe, and he elaborates:

Around 20 million people live in the countryside in Central Asia. Two-thirds work with cotton and really with nothing else besides. Farmers, gardeners, orchard keepers have all had to change profession — they are now employed as laborers on cotton plantations. Coercion and fear compel them to work with cotton. Coercion and fear, for it surely isn’t money. One earns pennies harvesting cotton. And the work is tiring and monotonous. To fulfill his daily quota, a man mustbend down ten to twelve thousand times. An atrocious, forty-degree heat [Celsius], air that stinks of virulent chemicals, aridity, and constant thirst destroy the human being, especially women and children … people pay with their health and their life for the personal well-being and power of a handful of demoralized careerists.

The “careerists” in Moscow would agree upon, beforehand, the amount of the coming cotton harvest. It was always a number which was completely unattainable. Then when the smaller harvest came in, Brezhnev and his nitwits would inflate the numbers and spread positive propaganda about the miracle they had worked in Uzbekistan. The “cotton mafia” got rich off of the completely imaginary massive cotton harvests. And the people working the cotton starved, because no longer could they feed themselves with their own orchards.

But all of this is pretty much just the normal tragedy (with different details) of all of the republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Communists raped the land, enslaved the citizens, and closed the borders. This is all par for the course.

What makes the tragedy in Uzbekistan stand out is the Aral Sea, the once-beautiful and vital Aral Sea, a sea which, in a matter of 25 years, has dried up off the face of the earth, creating global ecological issues.

The Soviets over-taxed the Amu and Syr Darya rivers, they cut tributaries into the desert, to divert the water where they wanted it to go. And almost immediately (the balance of nature is so delicate in any desert), both of the ancient and great rivers began to dry up, and shrink to nothing. Amu and Syr are what feed the Aral Sea. So the drying up of the two rivers had massive consequences for the Aral Sea, which began to shrink. It shrank so rapidly that if you look at satellite photographs of the sea, from 1967 to 1997, you see it almost completely disappear.

Kapuscinski again:

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, instead of flowing into the Aral Sea, were, according to man’s will, sqandered along the way, spilled over fields, over unending deserts, along an immense distance of more than 3000 kilometers. For this reason, the calm and broad currents of both powerful rivers — the only source of life in this part of the world — instead of swelling and intensifying in the course of their journey (as is customary in nature), began to decline, to shrink, to get narrower and shallower, until, short of reaching the sea, they were transformed into salty, poisoned, and muddy pools, into spongy and foul-smelling ditches, into treacherous puddles of duckweed, finally sinking below ground and disappearing from view.

So the rivers shrink. Because the river shrinks, the sea disappears. And then there’s the issue with salt. Here’s some info about what the Aral Sea once was (I got this from the Aral Sea homepage):

The salt deposits rising to the surface because of the shrinking of the rivers destroyed the land, and because of all the windstorms and duststorms common to deserts, these salt deposits also ruined the atmosphere. This was exacerbated by all of the pesticides which had soaked into the land over the decades, so the pesticides are stirred up by the windstorms, and spread, ruining the air for miles and miles around.

Kapuscinski on the salt problem:

It is a known fact that a dozen or so meters below the surface of every desert lie large deposits of concentrated salt. If water is conducted to it, the salt, together with the moisture, will rise to the surface. And that is exactly what happened now in Uzbekistan. The concealed, crushed, deeply secreted salt started to move upward, to regain its liberty. The golden land of Uzbekistan, which was first cloaked in the white of cotton, was now glazed over with a lustrous crust of white salt.

But one doesn’t have to study the ground. When the wind blows, one can taste the salt on one’s lips, on one’s tongue. It stings the eyes.


The Aral Sea and its tributaries provided sustenance for 3 million people. But the fate of this sea and its two rivers also impinges on the situation of all the inhabitants of this region, of whom there are 32 million.

The Soviet authorities have long worried about how to reverse the disaster — the destruction of the Aral Sea, the ruination of half of Central Asia. It is after all well known that the unprecedented increase in cotton cultivation has led to a tragic shortage of water, a shortage that is destroying a large part of the world (a fact which to this day continues to be concealed).

Then, of course, the USSR collapsed. Although the USSR was an ungainly bohemoth, an “evil empire”, and although this whole mess was their fault in the first place, they still were the only ones aware enough of the problem to try to find solutions. Granted their “solutions” were insane: bombing glaciers in the Tienshan and Pamir mountains, for example, so that the run-off would flood the land again was one of their bright ideas, or redirecting the rivers of Siberia (thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away) to come down into Uzbekistan, so that Brezhnev’s crazy dream of a Land of Cotton could be realized. This, if they had followed through with it, of course would have meant the ruination of Siberia.

Once the USSR collapsed, Uzbekistan was completely abandoned. All of the Russians who knew how to do anything fled the country, leaving it in the hands of a down-trodden uneducated populace, a populace who still remembers the sea, but who now live in a stinking polluted desert, with nowhere to go. And so the Aral Sea has died.

Environmental groups all over the world have stepped in, to try to save the situation. The Soviets had enslaved the Uzbeks and had given them no sense of agency in their destinies, they just were forced to harvest the cotton imposed on them, and tried to live their lives, while the environmental disaster in their own country intensified almost on a minute to minute basis. People die much earlier there. People get weird unclassifiable diseases. People are poisoned.

It’s a lost cause.

So the Aral Sea is shrinking, and a process of “desertification” is taking place. The sands growing more and more insistent, taking over more and more acreage … there are photos of once flourishing fishing villages overrun by giant dunes.

Kapuscinski, on his travels, visits Muynak, which was, literally only a couple of years ago, a fishing port on the Aral Sea.

[Muynak] now stands in the middle of the desert; the sea is 60 to 80 kilometers from here. Near the settlement, where the port once was, rusting carcasses of trawlers, cutters, barges, and other boats lie in the sand. Despite the fact that the paint is peeling and falling off, one can still make out some of the names: Estonia, Dagestan, Nahodka. The place is deserted; there is no one around …

It is a sad settlement — Muynak. It once lay in the spot where the beautiful life-giving Amu Darya flowed into the Aral Sea, an extraordinary sea in the heart of a great desert. Today, there is neither river nor sea. In the town the vegetation has withered; the dogs have died. Half the residents have left, and those who stayed have nowhere else to go. They do not work, for they are fishermen, and there are no fish. Of the Aral Sea’s 178 species of fish and frutti di mare, only 38 remain. Besides, the sea is far away; how is one to get there across the desert? If there is no strong wind, people sit on little benches, leaning against the shabby and crumbling walls of their decrepit houses. It is impossible to ascertain how they make a living; it is difficult to communicate with them about anything. They are Karakalpaks — they barely speak any Russian, and the children no longer speak Russian at all. If one smiles at the people sitting against the walls, they become even more gloomy, and the women veil their faces. Indeed, a smile does look false here, and laughter would sound like the screech of a rusty nail against glass.

Children play in the sand with a plastic bucket that’s missing a handle. Ragged, skinny, sad. I did not visit the nearest hospital, which is on the other side of the sea, but in Tashkent I was shown a film made in that hospital. For every 1000 children born, 100 die immediately. And those that survive? The doctor picks up in his hands little white skeletons, still alive, although it is difficult to tell.

One of my goals in life is to someday see the “boat cemetery” in the now-dried-up Aral Sea. It would be a terrible trip, haunting and sad (I am haunted by the big sign with a fish on it, from where a fish market used to be – now surrounded by a huge desert) … but it is something I have been longing to see for about ten years now, maybe more.

Sometimes, in quieter moments, I suddenly think about those boats sitting in the desert all the way across the world. They’re there right now, rusting and being eaten up by the rapidly-spreading dunes.

It’s something I think it is important to acknowledge, first of all … but it’s also something I just really want to see.



















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35 Responses to The Boat Cemetery in Central Asia

  1. george says:

    I can understand wanting to experience this in person. It would be about as surreal an experience as one could have.

    I remember seeing a televised documentary that dealt with this catastrophe. It was unbelievable, hard to fathom. I also remember coming across a story of another strange aspect to this disaster. I just googled several phrases and hit on the link below. Although not the article I vaguely remember it does remark on the events I recall reading about. Does Kapucinski mention anything like this in “Imperium”?

  2. Ken says:

    Sadly, it’s all too true.

    The irony is, cotton was originally a dryland plant well adapted to arid conditions. In much of Texas it’s still grown that way. It’s called “stripper cotton” because of the type of mechanical harvester used; it’s sort of like a combine head for cotton. Long-staple cotton is picked by “pickers” that have a number of moving parts usually not seen outside of steampunk (engineering marvels, they are, plus a six-row picker is about the size of a small house on wheels), and are much gentler on the cotton.

    Stripper cotton yields less per acre than long-staple cotton, and has more “trash” in the fiber that has to be cleaned out. Long-staple cotton is easier to spin into thread; that’s why it’s more desirable in the market. The extremely-long staple stuff, like Pima and whatnot, is grown in California, Arizona, and Egypt (other places too, but those come to mind offhand).

    Remember when you used (briefly) to post “learned essays” from guest authors on various topics? :-)

  3. red says:

    Ken – ah yes, my expert essays. I got some really good stuff from people, they were fun!

    Thanks for the background on the different kinds of cotton. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the Aral Sea, but it’s always good to learn more.

  4. red says:

    George – excellent link, thank you! He’s a good writer. It really gives a feel for the atmosphere out there … just crazy. The isolation of these places, I know, make them very susceptible to all kinds of lawlessness – but Kapuscinski does not cover that in his book. His main essay is on the desertification … I can’t remember when it was published – 1993? Something like that. Right in the aftermath of the collapse of the Imperium.

    I have a good friend who has been to the boat cemetery, and Muynak and all those places when he was stationed in Uzbekistan. I was very demanding of him: “TAKE ME THERE.” It just never seemed to happen. It’s quite a journey and would involve a lot of planning, etc. But I remain hopeful.

  5. red says:

    Oh, and just to say: I cannot recommend Kapuscinski’s books highly enough. Imperium is amazing – but all of his books: The Soccer War, Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, Another Day of Life – covering wars and revolutions from El Salvador to Iran to Angola – are just wonderful stuff. They are travelogues – philosophical tomes … ruminations on things like borders and nations … not to be taken as strict journalistic truth. They’re contemplations.

    Terrific writer. I miss him (he died recently).

  6. DBW says:

    I’m lightheaded. Without warning, she’s back! Not trying to make light of this, but I LOVE it when you write about such things. I have seen photos, and read about this in the past. The photos are surreal, and it’s hard to comprehend that something like this could occur. Kapuscinski was a giant.

  7. red says:

    DBW – Hey, I haven’t been anywhere. I’ve been here all along.

    I am glad at least YOU are flexible. I adore you.

    (I edited this comment. I decided to just shut the eff up!!)

    I’m very interested in the Aral Sea, and have been for a long time – I wrote about it on my old blog-spot site as well. I have had these pictures of the “boat cemetery” on my desktop forever … I am just haunted by them – so figured I’d put them up.

    Back to Kapuscinski:

    I am pretty sure I wrote about the thing I went to at the NYPL to celebrate Kapuscinski after he passed away – it was just an amazing day, and I got to learn a lot more about him – especially from his friend Salman Rushdie.

    Kapuscinski’s idol was Herodotus (his last book, just published, is about Herodotus) – so Kapuscinski is IN his books, but not IN his books – in a similar way to Herodotus It’s strange and hypnotic. We don’t learn much about him personally – but his voice tells us all we need to know about the type of MIND he had. I’m just sad that that is it … we won’t have any more books from him.

    I wish he had written a true memoir.

    The latest book – the Herodotus one – was boring to me … didn’t quite work. It came out after he died, so I imagine there was some piecing together of fragments – that’s what it felt like to me anyway. The stories about his start as a journalist, growing up under the totalitarian system of the Soviets – … taking any job that would allow him to LEAVE Poland …

    So fascinating!

    He and Rushdie were friendly rivals. They had the same publisher, and the same editor worked on their early books.

  8. Jen W. says:

    How fascinating. I’m just starting to get interested in Russian history, and I know it’s one of your favorite subjects. I really know very little, so to read about this and be aware of this is a little mind-boggling. I’ve read about the Aral Sea, but not a lot of the environmental articles about mention the sociological causes behind it. Thanks for opening my eyes. Those photos are haunting.

  9. red says:

    Jen – Yeah, I get angry when something that was obviously caused by stupid human policies is kind of slid over or misunderstood … I read some article a couple years ago where they blamed the situation on “drought” – and I nearly blew a gasket. They said, “After years of drought, the area is suffering …” and then said nothing about the causes of the damn drought.

    Yeah, and WHY was there a drought, hmmm????

    The drought don’t come out of nowhere!

    The last picture just … haunts me because the sand really does look like a wave crashing over the bow.

    I just want to see it all in person. I must make it happen. Maybe after I sell my book. :)

  10. red says:

    DBW – found my post about the tribute gathering I went to for Kapuscinski – it was such a cool day.

  11. MrG says:

    Sounds like Arizona. We were once known for Copper, Cattle and Cotton. No three things could have been worse for our natural environment. What was once a luscious delta where the Colorado River reaches the sea is no more. The river doesn’t make it that far anymore. And that is but one small example of the toll that has been extracted in the name of progress and population.

  12. DBW says:

    Hey. I know where you have been. I just meant my beloved little Communism exposer. I am at work, and just SWAMPED today, so I didn’t get to read any comment that you later edited–unfortunately. I remember reading your tribute gathering post, and I was jealous as hell that you got to attend. Anyway, as you know, I am a big fan of these types of posts. Doesn’t mean I didn’t reall enjoy the Ben Marley/Apollo 13 essay, because I did, BUT–really, really Love these posts of yours.

  13. red says:

    my beloved little Communism exposer.

    I’m not sure, but I think that might be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.

    I’m not even kidding.

    You didn’t miss much with my edited comment. Sometimes I really just need to ZIP IT.

    The best part about the Kapuscinsci tribute was the two rows of Polish-speaking people in the front – and when the Polish journalist got up and spoke, and was obviously drunk and garrulous and amusing – but we, the English speakers, had to wait for the translator – so we would hear the first two rows EXPLODE with laughter and we’d have to wait to hear what was said … It was this strangely beautiful wave-like motion of sound … Polish to English … laugh in front, laugh in back … Seemed to speak directly to Kapuscinski’s universal appeal.

    I miss that man!!

  14. red says:

    Oh, and I am unable to find a link to the book I quote from The Aral Catastrophe – which really goes into great geological and sociological detail about the crisis. I own the book, but I found it at the Strand, not online. There are other books out there, too – but you just need to be careful (in my opinion) – on what you read. This is a situation that many sides want to “own” or “disown”. You need a source that doesn’t have a bone to pick, or something to hide.

    But I found The Aral Catastrophe to be an awesome (and very upsetting) overview of the entire situation.

  15. Ken says:

    To add to MrG’s point: a lot of the Colorado River ends up in a lot of interesting places (with lots of unintended consequences). Rumor has it that the Big Dream Water Project(tm) is to divert the Yukon to the Great Lakes, and then take water from the Great Lakes to the Southwest. It would be a project of scale and scope akin to the Three Gorges Dam in China.

    And it appears that at least some of the predicted consequences of Three Gorges have started to come true. Speaking as one who lives ten minutes from the storied shores of Lake Erie, that don’t sit so well with me. ;-)

    Nature cannot be preserved unchanging as in amber. The nature of nature is to change. That does not absolve us of the obligation to be a little bit schmott about what we do.

  16. Dave E. says:

    Great post. I would love to see all of the “stans” someday. You’ve written some other great posts on that part of the world that I remember. This was also a timely reminder to get Imperium, I meant to order it long ago, so I just did.

  17. red says:

    Imperium has some of his best writing, I think.

    Have you read his other stuff, Dave E? I know that Soccer War and The Emperor are what he is really known for – but for me, Imperium is better (if I had to choose, I mean).

  18. Dave E. says:

    No, but I remember your post on Soccer War and maybe I’ll get that next. It’s kind of funny, I was just thinking last night about getting back into reading something with a little meat. I haven’t had much energy for anything but “mindless” fiction lately. Mindless isn’t really the right word…maybe “easy” is better.

  19. red says:

    The great thing about The Soccer War is it’s a compilation of different pieces – revolutions in Central America, Vietnam, other places … so if you don’t feel like reading a whole BOOK about, say, Angola – Soccer War is good for that. I think that was the first of his I read.

    I also love his book on Iran (Shah of Shahs).

    But Imperium sounds like it was a book he had been working on his whole life, and it is only with the crackup of the USSR that he could really SPEAK about it. Up until then, he had shielded what he was doing by writing about totalitarian societies in other countries … and then he could finally write about Russia, which had invaded Poland in 1939 and he was there. He remembers taht invasion.

    It’s panoramic – and not strictly journalistic – there’s a whole gorgeous section about how cognac is made, and there’s a section about the love and passion Armenia has for its books – but then, too, he parses the complicated Nagorno-Karabakh situation (when Kapuscinski is smuggled into the country to report on it – a very tense situation) – and the Ossetians and the problems in Georgia – – and the creation of Stalin, and the war on religion in the Imperium –

    It’s a mish-mash.

    Good stuff.

  20. red says:

    Ken – can I ask you for an impromptu essay, please? I’m a little confused. You mention the dryland cotton … why was that not used here in desert conditions? I mean, yes, everyone involved was stupid – but could you please explain it a little bit more?

  21. Ken says:

    You want it in this here thread, or separately?

  22. red says:

    Yeah – put it in this thread! I think people will get a lot out of it! (If you don’t mind …)

  23. Ken says:

    Not at all.

    Cursory research suggests they’d have played hell trying to grow even dryland cotton in Uzbekistan under any circumstances. Cotton, first cultivated thousands of years ago in the Indus valley (also sprach Wikipedia) is a semitropical or tropical shrub, evolved to withstand heat and occasionally short water (I presume) during high summer.

    There are (oversimplifying a little) three kinds of commercially important cotton. Upland cotton is, I think, the largest proportion. Upland varieties tend to need more water and are picked, as I mentioned previously, by mechanical pickers in the developed world, and by hand in the developing world. This, I am reliably informed, is not fun.

    Stripper cotton tends to have shorter fibers, and the extra cleaning at the cotton gin required to remove the trash from the lint creates more short fibers. The quality isn’t as high, it’s not as strong, it’s not as easy to spin on the high-speed ring spinning machines currently in vogue in the state-of-the-art textile mills in Asia. (Most textile manufacture has gone to Asia; more than 70 percent of the U.S. cotton crop is exported now.)

    The third type is “extremely long staple” cotton, the highest quality stuff. When upland cotton is fetching 60-70 cents per pound (and stripper cotton something less due to lower grading), ELS goes for about a buck twenty. It’s expensive to produce, though. Dryland stripper cotton is the cheapest to produce, but also fetches a lower price at market.

    Cotton is graded at the gin for color, cleanliness, staple length (length of the fibers), length uniformity, thickness of the fibers, and strength. The best-paying cotton is very white, very clean, long, fine, strong cotton. (Nice work if you can get it, basically.)

    Crop yield is always limited by the most scarce resource. Water is often the most scarce resource. The High Plains of Texas and Oklahoma (stripper cotton central) get about 18 inches of rain per year. The Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, which includes the Syr Darya, gets 4-12 in/year. This makes Texas a less than optimal comparison for Uzbekistan, and I should also point out that even without extensive irrigation the strain on the Ogallala Aquifer is considerable. A better comparison to Uzbekistan would be Arizona (first noted by MrG earlier in the thread), which gets around 7 in/yr. And, as MrG points out, the Colorado Delta has been affected. To be fair, the residential and commercial (non-ag) demand on the Colorado is quite a bit greater than on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

    According to the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1 website, the old-style open-ditch irrigiation systems could lose 10-30% of their water to evaporation or deep percolation (sinking back into the soil) per 1,000 linear feet of ditch. Nowadays, irrigation is considerably more efficient. You may have seen center-pivot systems (long, arching pipes with a series of triangular-looking legs); a good center-pivot system is 90-95% efficient. The gold standard, though, is subsurface “drip tape,” flat tubes with holes at regular intervals, buried in the soil near the root zone of the crop. Drip tape approaches 100 percent efficiency, but it ain’t cheap. You mostly see it in high-value crops like vegetables and melons, where relatively high cash returns are possible on relatively small acreage.

    What does all this have to do with Uzbekistan? Well, it was kind of like a perfect storm of agricultural disasters: about the irreducible minimum of rainfall combined with the most inefficient irrigation methods (standard for the time, but highly inefficient). Tree crops like apples and figs, with relatively deeper root systems presumably better able to use existing soil moisture, are far better adapted for the climate and conditions. Had the Soviets not already wrecked the Aral Sea through hubris, someone might have been just about able to get away with growing cotton now, using the most modern irrigation methods, and not wrecked the Aral…at least not as quickly. Still be less than ideal land use, though.

  24. red says:

    Ken – this is fascinating and extremely helpful. I so appreciate it. I grew up in a town surrounded by turf farms and am very familiar with the triangular-legged irrigation systems you mention.

    It seems like you are saying (correct me if i am wrong) that the Soviets were going for something quick and dirty – a project that would provide immediate results, to be bragged about, with zero long-term considerations factored in. The way Kapuscinski describes it, there were Russian engineers who advised against this project – but we all know what happened to them. I can imagine how devastating it would be (emotionally) to SEE what was going to happen – if you were one of those engineers – and be absolutely unable to be heard.

    What a disaster. it makes me sick to think about.

    I very much appreciate you taking the time to write that. Thank you.

  25. DBW says:

    And, now, Ken will give us fifteen incredibly informative paragraphs on …..the state of ballet in Latvia, or the history of crime among the Inuits. Just kidding. I’m always taken with just how damn smart some people are. Not that I’m bitter.

  26. red says:

    Damn those crime-ridden Inuits!!!

    I adore the Internet.

  27. Ken says:

    If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. If you’re not fending off crime-ridden Inuits, you’re beset by bourgeois apparatchiks.

    Nekulturny bourgeois apparatchiks.

    That’s pretty much it, Sheila. The Soviets set out to produce cotton in Uzbekistan pretty much the way everyone produced cotton at the time, but they were pushing the envelope more than conditions warranted, and believing that New Soviet Man could will it so.

  28. red says:

    “nekulturny!” hahahaha Ah, the memories. Of “schmatte-clad Yentes” and all that postmodern crap.

    I love your memory.

    So … it appears from what I have read that the disaster happened relatively quickly. This was not a gradual process – it happened in the span of one generation. These desert rivers are there in their spot for a REASON and diverting them have disastrous consequences. You need to think one or two steps ahead and even have a system in place where it is possible to ask the question: “so …. what will happen when these rivers move?” But the Soviets did not have that.

  29. MrG says:

    What a great post and a great set of comments. Thank you for all the info! I love it.
    Related to this subject there is a great documentary (and book too maybe) called “Cadillac Desert.” If you want to see how an entire lake/river can and does get moved.

  30. red says:

    Mr. G – thanks for the tip – looks like it is a book as well. I will definitely have to check it out.

    Joan Didion has written some very good pieces about water management issues in California and Nevada – and so has Robert Kaplan, one of my favorite writers.

    I will add Cadillac Desert to the list – it looks very interesting.

    You say it’s a documentary, too?

  31. MrG says:

    Yes, I personally have only seen it in that from, documentary. Its crazy in the sense that they really do move this entire lake in California, a long ways, in order to bring water (closer)to Los Angeles. In the process of course its literally destruction and death. Almost unbelieveable…except we know these extremes happen.

  32. MrG says:

    And not to take the subject and run too far – because the post was very specific in time and place, cause and effect – but the area that interests me now is the Tibetan Plateau, giant ice shelf. Those glaciers feed all those rivers running through Pakistan, India, and Southeast Asia, Ganges and Mekong to name a couple of well known ones. The glaciers are melting now and China already has plans to damn some of those feeds within its border. Not to be alarmist (not my nature) but the politics of the region could get even more dicey over this.

  33. Jen W. says:

    Wow, this was possibly the most informative comments section I’ve ever seen. I love the range of people and subjects that come up here. :)

  34. Ken says:

    I read Cadillac Desert! That’s where I first heard of the divert-the-Yukon-to-the-Great-Lakes idea.

  35. red says:

    Jen – I agree. This has been fantastic. Makes me think I should do more of this, like I used to. DBW will be happy! :)

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