Wheeler, W. 2021. Environment and Post-Soviet Transformation in Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea Region: Sea changes. UCL Press. ISBN: 9781800080331 (Ebook, open access)/ 9781800080348 (soft copy, 25 £)/ 9781800080355 (hard back, 45 £)
To cite this review: Sehring, J. 2023. Review of “Environment and Post-Soviet Transformation in Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea Region: Sea changes, UCL Press, by William Wheeler. Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/351-kazak
Who wouldn’t know about the Aral Sea? Labelled as one of the the world’s worst environmental disasters, the satellite image of the few leftover ponds amidst a dried-out seabed and desert has become an iconic illustration of the consequences of unsustainable water use. But who really knows about the Aral Sea? About the life and its changes in and at the lake, about the people who live at its (former) shores, their livelihoods and socio-cultural entanglement with the sea?
William Wheeler’s book “Environment and post-Soviet transformation in Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea region: sea changes” complements the existing literature on the Aral Sea basin with two important perspectives. First, with a local perspective focusing on the Northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, a small part revived since the 1990s. Second with looking at the development of livelihoods that depend directly on the sea (fish) and not on its tributaries (irrigation). And he presents a fascinating account on why in the perception of local residents – in contrast to the rest of the world - the main disaster was not the disappearance of the Aral Sea, but of the one blamed for it, the Soviet Union.
Starting point for Wheeler’s environmental anthropology is the apparent success story of a technical solution to a complex environmental crisis: In the 1990s, a dam was built to separate the small northern part of the Aral Sea fed by the Syr Dayra from the bigger Southern part fed by the Amu Darya. As the Syr Darya since then only feeds the Northern part, and the flow increased due to water savings upstream, the sea level rose again, salinity of water reduced, flora and fauna returned and commercial fishing was restarted. This brings him to scrutinize the interlinkages and ambivalences of environmental changes – the regression and partial restoration of the Aral Sea – with the continuities and ruptures of (post-)socialism and to ask what it means that it receded as a “socialist sea”, but returned as a “postsocialist sea”.
Based on twelve months of fieldwork in the former harbour town Aralsk and several villages nearby, the book unfolds the multiple meanings attributed to the Aral regression and partial recovery. Wheeler’s analysis builds on political ecology approaches and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope, which he uses to show how configurations of time and space are represented in discourses.
Chapter 1 of the book starts with an overview of the uneven development in Soviet Central Asia. The Aral Sea was of economic value for the fishing industry, which was, however, marginal compared to the cotton complex. For the politically important cotton industry, the lake was a waste of water that could have been used for irrigation. The dominance of cotton led to the well-known extension of irrigation agriculture and the receding of the Aral Sea. The negative effects of this became visible in the early 1960s.
Chapter 2 looks at the bureaucratic response during the Soviet Union. Local and provincial authorities responsible for the fisheries tried to raise awareness and demanded action. However, even in the less authoritarian late USSR it was politically not possible to question irrigation expansion policies. Consequently, the Aral Sea was framed as a problem of livelihoods and employment of those working in the fishery industry, not as an environmental problem. This gave local authorities leverage. Destroying the environment was not at odds with Soviet ideology, but not ensuring full employment and social welfare was. In this logic, the state response was not to reduce water use for irrigated agriculture or mitigate the environmental consequences, but to address the social ones: employment had to be ensured. Fishermen were sent to other water bodies across the Soviet Union to work, fish factories in Aralsk were supplied with fish from as far as the Pacific and the Baltic Sea to process. These and other measures mediated the impact of the environmental crisis on the livelihoods at the shores. This is further explored in the third and fourth chapters and explains why the Soviet Union is still remembered with nostalgia. There is also some nostalgia about the sea. However, the perception of crisis is not linked with its slow disappearance, but with the dissolution of the USSR and the loss of employment and social safety.
Chapter 5 takes us through the “success story” of the Northern Aral. This happened thanks to the unlikely synergies between two very different development projects. One is the Kökaral dam mentioned already above, which ensures that the flow of the Syr Darya water feeds first and foremost the Kazakh part of the lake. It was not the new sovereign Kazakh state that initiated the dam to help the people in this marginal region of a country rich in oil and gas reserves. It was first a local initiative, a dam built with sand, and then the World Bank helped to make it from concrete. The second project is a local cooperation between Danish and Kazakh fisherfolk. A Danish project taught Kazakh fisherfolk how to catch flounder (a salt-tolerant species introduced in the early 1980s), provided them with necessary material and supported the establishment of local NGOs to unite the fisherfolk and implement environmental projects. It was the flounder project that showed that commercial fishery was possible again in the Aral Sea. Only with the first positive effects of a revived sea also the state invested in the Kökaral dam, and branded it as a symbol of Kazakh sovereignty.
The Northern Aral Sea filled more rapidly than expected. Salinity levels declined and freshwater fish species reappeared. Ironically, the flounder suffered from this as it could not sustain in the new environment. The flounder, and with it the vision of a small-scale, sustainable, cooperatively organized local fishery, made room for the zander, a “capitalist fish” as one of Wheeler’s interlocutors called it, which is not valued locally but caught and processed by large-scale operators for export mainly to Europe. Wheeler shows in chapters 4, 5 and 6 the centrality of fish and fishing in reproducing social relations among the local population. While zander is seen as a commodity traded for monetary income, other fish is exchanged for local consumption and maintaining reciprocal social relations. The returned sea is indeed a success story for the fishing industry and for several extended families and villages whose livelihoods depend on it. It had less impact on Aralsk itself, however, because the dam is not high enough to let the sea level raise until the former harbour town.
At several points, Wheeler mentions the changing role of women: not fishing themselves, they worked in the processing plants during the Soviet Union (and to some degree still today). In the unstable 1990s women evolved as public actors being the heads of the NGO; with economic recovery and capitalist expansion their role seems to get more restricted to the household. This gender dynamics would deserve more research on its own.
The last chapter 7 returns to the question of the negative environmental impacts of the dried Aral Sea on the health of people. While many people feel these effects, Wheeler shows that the narrative of environmental crisis is also perceived to threaten local integrity and pride. Therefore, the environmental impacts of the dried sea are often neglected or explained with the rocket launches from Baikonur. Wheeler also shows parallels between the environmental change from sea to desert and the political-economic change to an authoritarian market economy in local perceptions. Both are characterised by invisible / incomprehensible cause-effect relations – the invisible toxic dust particles and the unknown flows of money and commodity in a market economy characterized by corruption and intrigue, which both lead to insecurities of local life and shape local discourses.
The book offers a rich ethnographic account of people’s life amidst environmental and political-economic changes. Wheeler uses the terms “post-Soviet” and “post-socialist” to frame these changes. These concepts have been contested in recent years as they conceal the differences between the countries both in their pre-Soviet history as well as pathways in the last three decades, reproduce the binaries between the capitalist West and the socialist East, and neglect the colonial aspects of the Soviet Union. Wheeler justifies them with the attention he puts on the analysis of the Soviet legacies. However, sometimes a reference not to post-socialism, but to capitalism could have made the political economy of the current Aral Sea clearer. Wheeler’s discussion about the parallels and differences of the Aral flounder and Tsing’s (2015) ‘mushroom at the end of the world’ brings interesting insights on the development dynamics in what Tsing frames as pericapitalist sites. It could have featured broader and more central in the book to speak to an audience beyond those interested in Central Asia or the former Soviet Union. For those readers unfamiliar with the language and culture of the region, a more elaborate glossary with Kazakh and Russian terms used in the book would have been useful.
Tsing, A. L. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press.