The Devil and the Disappearing Sea

By Rob Ferguson

It is a disaster so immense yet so underreported it has been called the “quiet Chernobyl.”

In his book Water, Marq de Villiers calls it “the greatest man-made ecological catastrophe our benighted planet has yet seen.” Since 1960 the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water, has lost 80 per cent of its volume and over half its surface area. Experts think it may disappear completely by 2020, leaving behind a vast toxic desert.

The causes of the Aral Sea disaster are not in dispute. The economic planners of the former Soviet Union wanted to turn Central Asia into a cotton empire. To do this they needed a lot of water, which they got by implementing enormous, and enormously wasteful, irrigation projects. The Soviet Union is now out of the picture, and the Aral Sea basin is currently comprised of five states, none of which has a particularly modern or enlightened water policy: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Canadian communications specialist Rob Ferguson was sent to the region in 2000 as part of an international effort (the Aral Sea Project) to try and prevent the truly apocalyptic worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality. He was to be the team leader of a public awareness campaign whose mission was to “bring the disaster to the people.” As this account of his experience documents, that mission failed.

This is not a book that describes the Aral Sea catastrophe. In fact, Ferguson doesn’t even visit the Aral Sea or get a first-hand look at the immediate disaster area. Instead, he tells a behind-the-scenes story of post-Soviet greed and incompetence.

Ferguson discovers Central Asia to be a profoundly paranoid environment. Within its networks of opaque government bureaucracies everyone is taking and changing sides, lining up for institutional “battles” over administrative turf. Corruption is the norm in a world of “gentleman’s agreements” and unspoken standards of graft. One can never be sure who is a traitor, or who is stealing what from whom. Compounding Ferguson’s distrust is his reliance on interpreters. This makes him especially attuned to the sneers, leers, grimaces and blowing smoke that surround him.

The “Devil” of the title is Rim Guiniyatullin, an Uzbek official proud of having played a part in the destruction of the Aral Sea and now eager to profit from its rehabilitation. He is, like Conrad’s Station Manager on the Congo, a papier-mâché Mephistoles. “Maybe he really was the devil,” Ferguson imagines, “the sunken bloodshot eyes, the gigantic bald pate, the preternatural pasty skin, the flabby jowls. The pinched mouth that barely opened when he spoke. The tiny yellow teeth.” “Mr. G.”, as he is called, has no interest in saving anything. He wants money to keep his kids in American universities.

After a year of trading insults and angling for bribes, the mission collapses in a wash of recriminations, unpaid bills and angry finger pointing. One has the sense that this book is being published, at least in part, to settle a few personal, even petty (especially given the ongoing environmental catastrophe), scores.

Having accomplished nothing in terms of public awareness, Ferguson is left to claim a moral victory that he admits probably doesn’t count for much. This is merely depressing, in part because Ferguson himself seems so without conviction. One never gets the sense that the Aral Sea Project meant that much to him. His job as communications consultant seems to have amounted to little more than being a paid tourist. He goes sightseeing, does some recreational swimming, and spends a lot of time drinking and dancing with the locals. He mentions making presentations and coming up with a “media kit,” but that’s all he seems to have attempted. When, just before his mission is cancelled, one of his local aides is found murdered in her bathtub, he is happy to just get out of the place. Later he makes jokes about the murder investigation, and is quite unconcerned about his team’s possible responsibility for what happened.

That the public awareness mission was frustrated by corrupt regional bureaucrats was, apparently, a foregone conclusion. But Ferguson himself is a bureaucrat, and in the end it is his lack of vision and concern that depresses one the most. When he arrives in London his experience immediately seems “far away and ridiculous.” “It’s not your problem,” a Welsh colleague tells him without any trace of irony. “Get your money and get out.”

Ferguson was warned that his program would fail. People told him that he didn’t understand Central Asian bureaucracy. But what is there to understand? What makes them any different from him, or us?

Review first published November 1, 2003.


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