By Maria Golovnina
KOK ARAL, Kazakhstan, June 24 (Reuters) - Wind lashes against four rusty Soviet ships moored where the Aral Sea once lapped at the shores of a vibrant fishing town.
There is not a drop of water to be seen around the port of Aralsk — a silent testament to decades of Soviet experiments with nature that have turned the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, into a salt-encrusted desert.
"Apocalypse" reads graffiti scribbled on one lonely hulk. Cows forage for scraps of dry grass on the exposed seabed where ships once landed passengers and goods.
"All of that was water," said Amanzhol Zholmaganbet, a local resident in his 70s, pointing at Aralsk’s dilapidated wharves and the idle cranes that tower over the port. "We wept when the sea disappeared. I cried because I grew up here."
The Aral Sea has shrunk by 70 percent since 1960 when Soviet planners started siphoning off water from its feeder rivers to faraway farming projects, bringing starvation and misery to traditional fishing communities.
Its sea level has dropped by 16 metres, and storms carry salt and dust from its new deserts as far away as the Himalayas.
The sea finally split into two bodies of water in 1990: a big southern part in Uzbekistan and a smaller Kazakh pocket.
"I first noticed the sea started disappearing in 1967," recalled Zholmaganbet. "And then one day water left the port. ... Our sons do not believe there was once water here."
Yet there is a glimmer of hope.
A seven-year project led by the World Bank has helped replenish the smaller northern part of the Aral Sea by trapping water behind a dike — filling local people with a new sense of optimism and purpose.
"Good news — the sea is coming back," says a poster in the centre of Aralsk, its muddy streets sparkling with crystals of salt. Flocks of seagulls squawk as they glide above houses, and a faint hint of the sea is in the air.
The 13 km (8 mile) Kok-Aral dike is part of a wider, $86 million project due to be finished this year. Since it was built in 2005, the sea’s turquoise waters have crept as close as 25 km to Aralsk port, from a previous distance of 100 km.
"After the small sea started filling up, we started hoping again," said Akshabat Batimova, who is helping start up a new fish-processing plant. "If there is sea, there will be life."
The World Bank is considering a follow-up project with the Kazakh government, at an estimated cost of $300 million, to improve water efficiency and restore Aralsk’s waterfront.
Two fish-processing plants will open in Aralsk this year, and the fishing fleet, which vanished in the 1990s, now employs 600 people. Although the local catch remains a fraction of that seen in Soviet times, 16 types of fish, including new species such as the salt-resistant flounder, are netted regularly.
"When I look back today there is only one word that really describes all the changes in this region. It’s a miracle," said Kurt Christensen, a Danish environmentalist who has helped restore local fisheries since the early 1990s.
But restoring the whole Aral Sea would require much more.
The larger, Uzbek part is still dying. Uzbekistan — Central Asia’s most populous nation which relies on cotton exports — would have to shut down its entire water-thirsty textile industry to allow the Amu Darya river to flow back into the sea.
"I am afraid much of it may be lost," World Bank head Robert Zoellick told Reuters during a visit to Kok-Aral on June 19 to oversee the first phase of the project on the Kazakh side.
For Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, restoring livelihoods means ensuring stability in the Kazakh region, whose people have long resented more prosperous compatriots in Central Asia’s biggest oil producer.
The Aral Sea area’s water-starved villages and salty deserts contrast sharply with other parts of the country, including the capital Astana’s skyscrapers, shopping malls and cafes.
"President Nazarbayev had the vision to realise that this was not only an environmental disaster but it was a destructive aspect for this whole region of Kazakhstan," said Zoellick.
But some residents complain the government is not paying enough attention to wider, social problems in the region, where at least a quarter of the population lives in poverty and life expectancy falls short of that for richer Kazakhs.
Others joke with a tinge of sadness that more water is used during international Aral Sea conferences than the amount needed to restore the sea, which remains a big part of people’s lives.
Legends are still passed on from generation to generation — including one about a lost civilisation that once existed on the the rugged seabed.
"In ancient times people grew wine and walnuts here. There was a civilisation long before we Kazakhs came here," said Nurzhamal Muzamuratova, a museum worker. "The sea comes and goes over history. One day it will be back. We hope it will be back." (Editing by Catherine Evans)