The eerie, rusting 50-year-old ghost ships which are the only reminder that this desert used to be a sea
In the middle of the desert, you may stumble across a strange sight – a panorama of ghostly ships basking in the sun.
The ships are a relic from a bygone age, when the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was a rich area teeming with fish and providing a bustling trade for the surrounding communities.
Then, in the space of a few years, much of the sea dried up, the fish died, and nothing was left but the rusting hulls.
As the sea dried up, the fishermen moved away in the space of just a few years – leaving their boats as relics of the industry
The Aral Sea used to one of the largest lakes in the world, covering 26,300 square miles. Now, it exists only as about 2,000 square miles of water, split into four smaller lakes.
The vanishing sea – actually a lake, but dubbed the ‘sea’ as it was one of the largest lakes in the world – was a planned act by the Soviet Government.
The government wanted to use the water to irrigate other parts of the desert for the production of cotton and other goods and was well aware this would destroy large swathes of the Aral Sea.
Irrigation began in the 1940s, with the Soviets building large – but poorly-waterproofed – canals to divert water from the rivers that filled the lakes.
As the water was drained, the salinity of the sea increased, and the fish died, killing the industry
Estimates suggest that 50 to 75 per cent of the drained water ended up going to waste,
During each year of the 1960s, water levels dropped around eight inches a year – and then, in the 1970s, 24inches a year vanished.
In the 1980s, as more water got sent off for irrigation purposes, the water level dropped at the highest rate yet – an average of 35 inches a year – and by this point, the lakes had almost nothing left to give.
The locals faced a barrage of problems, as the thriving fishing industry died away, due to the salt-levels and pollution – previously diluted over the vast mass of water – increasing rapidly.
Once the water was gone, the ships were left, serving as little more than a reminder of a bygone age
It was not until 1991, when Ukbekistan broke from Russia, that the tide began to turn.
But not before things got worse, with an increase in the use of fertiliser poisoning the lake further.
The evaporation from the lakes, the increased salinity, and the accumulation of fertiliser made the lake a toxic mess, and health problems, such as turburclosis and cancer, hit the remaining locals.
From 2005 onwards, efforts began to restore the lakes to at least a shadow of their former glory, with a dam project helping to increase the water level, reduce the salinity, and bring wildlife back to the lakes.