The Devil and the Disappearing Sea

The Aral Sea was once the earth's fourth largest inland body of water, but in the span of two generations it has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Unless conditions change drastically, warns Rob Ferguson, it will disappear completely by 2020.

According to Ferguson, the lion's share of the blame for this catastrophe belongs to the former Soviet Union. When it was still a more-or-less concern, the USSR diverted the waters of the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers from the Aral into canals to irrigate vast new cotton plantations in the desert. As has been the case in so many ambitious agricultural projects, unintended consequences quickly eclipsed any anticipated benefits. Robbed of water, the sea began to shrink, while the farmlands themselves were poisoned with chemicals and excess salt. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of five new and often poorly governed Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the situation grew vastly more complicated.

Ferguson was hired by the Global Environment Facility as a contractor to work on the Water and Environmental Management Project for the Aral Sea Basin. His job was to mount a “public awareness campaign” to alert Uzbekistanis to the coming catastrophe and educate them in water management. Yet he was stymied at every turn by incompetents, sycophants, openly corrupt bureaucrats, hostile citizens, and just plain thieves. Bizarrely, he found himself reporting to one of the very men responsible for the crisis—the “Devil” of his title—and, falsely accused of murdering his own assistant, abandoned the project after a single year.

Ferguson's farcical experiences in The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: Or, How I Tried to Stop the World's Worst Ecological Catastrophe make for lively reading, and would be eminently laughable if the stakes were not so high.