Central Asian Water, from Kapuscinski to Carolyn Drake

One of the books I’m currently rereading (in paperback, since M. Scott still has my original copy. jerk.) is the masterpiece Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski. If you follow this blog or know me, you probably know of my fascination and obsession with the Russian story and myth. This book captures it better than anything I have read: a real, terrifying, heartbreaking, insane and beautifully personal diary of what traveling and interacting with the Russian/Soviet imperium was like, by one of the most astute, brave and poetic journalists who has ever lived.
Central Asia is rich in water, but 90% of it is concentrated in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, above. In Soviet times, the water was controlled by a central government, so that the lakes and rivers of the two upstream nations serviced the fields and electric needs of the downstream nations, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these controls have broken down and national self-interests have taken hold. (c) Carolyn Drake, Panos
If you have never read him, go out immediately and grab a copy of Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War as an introduction. This book came recommended to me by M. Scott, who was turned on to it by Antonin, who apparently knew Ryszard (who, sadly, passed away just last year). I’m also reading his newest, posthumous book Travels with Herodutus, the overview of his life as a man and as a young Polish international correspondent. Check back with me later for my thoughts on that.

In one chapter of Imperium (coincidentally, the one I was just looking at and thinking about before seeing these pictures) there is an epic account of the monumental environmental disaster that is Central Asian water policy, centered on the Aral Sea.

“The airplane delimits a wide circle, and when its wing dips, one can see sand dunes stretching down below, wrinkled by the wind. It is the new desert of Aral Kum-or, more precisely, the bottom of a sea that is disappearing from the face of the earth.”

Since Khruschev and Brezhnev of the 1960s, Russia pursued illogical and catastrophic pet projects in re-engineering the major rivers of Central Asia to irrigate new crops and expand residential areas beyond the natural resources of the region. The result was a 20ft drop in river depth and the sea breaking in to four separate bodies of water. If you are interested, you must see this outstanding update on new Aral Sea issues at top Central Asian resource Registan.net. The money quotes, explaining how locals and the government could pursue such disastrous policy (of draining the sea, and eventually leaving themselves with no water to use for anything):

“There are perhaps better things to grow [than cotton], and if there were free markets, perhaps the farmers would chose to grow something more profitable and more sustainable. The fact remains that when the state says they will put a stop to this mismanagement, it’s important to remember how much they profit from the status quo.”


And before I finish this rant, might I remind the reader that water is free to farmers in Central Asia, despite the fact that precious little of it is coming from the sky. Free resources exist in free markets only in instances of absolute abundance. Scarcity necessitates a price, and until that happens, water will remain a wasted resource. Key example – the subsidized free gas available in Turkmenistan has led to people leaving their stoves burning all day to save money on matches. Matches. This isn’t exclusively natural gas, as gasoline is likewise free to the consumer. These practices, if not the root the problem, certainly make it difficult to come up with effective measures to improve the situation.

It is a story that has become, amongst others in Kapuscinski’s books, a dream of mine to see for myself and photograph, to try and capture something of the mystery and epic myth that his words paint these places in my mind. So with some twinge of jealousy I share with you a wondrous set of pictures by Carolyn Drake that I just saw over at the Time Magazine photo page: “The Politics of Water in Central Asia”.
As far as I can tell this edit of a story comes from a few different projects on Drake’s website. It is stunning, as usual, and hits squarely on my (adopted) Russian heart. I’d be willing to publicly guess that she has read Kapuscinski’s account of the Aral Sea; I think I can feel his presence in her pictures. Though this is, like others have done before, a story taken straight from my own dreams, before I can live them myself, I am glad Drake pursued this issue and covered it so well. Hats off, beautiful work on a very interesting and important story.
Young boys enjoy the waters at Garm Chashma, a former Soviet resort built in the Tajik Mountains. (c) Carolyn Drake / Panos

2 Responses to “Central Asian Water, from Kapuscinski to Carolyn Drake”

  1. Worth a Look: Carolyn Drake in Central Asia | dvafoto

    […] written before about Carolyn Drake and her work about water issues in Central Asia, but Pete Brook on his auxiliary blog Photography Prison just pointed me to a new narrated […]

  2. Pete Brook

    Great piece Matt. Thanks for bringing it up to the surface for us again!

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