Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Karakalpak Fishermen Still Floundering

In the last remaining expanses of water, fishermen in the Aral Sea region struggle to make a living.
By IWPR staff

Lake Jyltyrbas.
Fisherman from Jyltyrbas.
Fishermen returning from work.

Fishermen in Karakalpakstan, a constituent republic of Uzbekistan, are back in business after years of drought - but they are struggling to get by since there is nowhere to store and process what they catch.


The whole Karakalpak region has been devastated by the drying up of the Aral Sea in recent decades. While commercial-scale fishing of the sea ended years ago, a few lakes around the delta of the Amu Darya river still allow some people to eke out a living.


Some in Karakalpakstan believe that with a little investment, the fishing industry could be revived on a modest scale, helping the economy of this desperately poor, arid region.


The men from the village of Kazakdarya who fish on Lake Jyltyrbas, 120 kilometres north of the regional capital Nukus, survive on what they catch but have no way of selling the surplus.


As they prepared supper - fish soup, naturally - on an open fire at their camp by the lake, the men told IWPR that they land half a tonne of fish every day, and that they could catch four times that amount if only they had more nets and the right transport and storage facilities.


"There's a lot of fish, but we don't know what to do with them - there aren't even enough refrigerators to keep them fresh," said fisherman Ausbai Aliev, in charge of the cooking pot.


Any fish that are landed are seen as a great blessing here. In 2000 and 2001, a severe drought caused the Amu Darya - one of the region's main waterways - to dry up some 100 kilometres short of Karakalpakstan, turning the small lakes and creeks of the delta to dust.


Karakalpaks remember this time with horror. Cattle died of thirst before their eyes, they say, and one by one families left their homes to move wherever the drought had not yet reached.


Last year, water began to flow into the lakes again, and fish reappeared in them. By this year the fish stocks had grown enough to allow fishing to resume.


But the lack of infrastructure - a problem long before the recent drought - prevents fisherment from capitalising on their improved situation.


There used to be a fishing industry in Karakalpakstan, centring on a large processing and canning plant at the port town of Muinak, which handled a quarter of a million tonnes a year. But the sea has receded so much that Muinak is now more than 100 kilometres from the waterline. For a time the Soviet authorities transported fish caught in the Baltic Sea thousands of kilometres overland just to keep the canning plant running, but the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 put paid to that scheme, and the factory fell into disrepair.


The much-reduced production process finally ground to a halt last year, when the plant was formally declared bankrupt and had its electricity cut off.


Even though no one has been paid a wage for years, some people still turn up to "work", whiling away the time chatting in the cobweb-covered, rusting factory. There is nothing else for people to do in this town of 28,000 people.


"What else can we do? It's boring at home and we have to have somewhere to go," shrugged the factory's chief engineer Amangeldy Tulibekov. Turning out his empty pockets, Tulibekov said his family gets by on the earnings of his four sons who work in neighbouring Kazakstan.


With no sign that the Aral Sea will recover its former size in future years - the Amu Darya and the other great river, the Syr Darya, continue to lose far too much water to irrigation further upstream - there is little chance that the huge Muinak operation will ever be needed again.


However, the local authorities believe something can still be salvaged to keep production going on a more limited scale. The deputy governor of Muinak region, Jenisbai Ashiniyazov, wants to restart production of industrial-grade oil and fish flour by the end of this year.


"To do this we need to find the money to buy new equipment - and we have to do it, since the factory is the main livelihood for the people of Muinak," said Ashiniyazov, a young and energetic administrator. "There is no talk of any help from Nukus or Tashkent, as both of them have forgotten the plant event exists, or else they don't have any money for us."


Ashiniyazov's plans are still some way off. For the moment, the fishermen at Lake Jyltyrbas continue to load their catch into an old Lada car and take it back to their village.


They hand it over to Komek Alimov, who heads a fish processing workshop in Kazakdarya, who has no refrigerators so he simply places the fish in large tubs of salt to stop it spoiling in the heat.


"It's a shame that we can't store and process the fish," said a downcast Alimov. "If we had new nets and a decent fridge we'd live like we used to, or almost like we used to when the sea was here."