Who are the inhabitants of the Aral Sea region of Uzbekistan?

A NOTE FROM THE TEAM: Here we present only a general image of the Karakalpak, a people with a rich culture and history. We invite you to enrich this article with your knowledge by contributing in the comments, or contacting the author Nicolas Bergounioux via info@beyondcatastrophe.com.

Under the USSR, the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan was created in 1925, and became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. Karakalpakstan covers 166 600 km2 which is 28% of Uzbekistan’s territory. The Republic is home to ~1,8 million inhabitants including 400 000 Karakalpaks, 400 000 Uzbeks and 300 000 Kazakhs. The region has always been diverse and multi-ethnic with communities of Turkmens, Koreans, Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs as well as Kyrgyz. Their life revolved around cattle-breeding, fishing and irrigated agriculture. The majority of the residents of Karakalpakstan, especially in the northern districts, speak Karakalpak regardless of their ethnicity. Many also speak Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen.

The Karakalpak people, for whom the republic is named, are a Turkic origins ethnic group living in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in the Northwestern part of the Republic of Uzbekistan. They settled down south of the Aral Sea around the 18th century after roaming on the Central Asian steppes. They adopted a semi-nomadic way of living, migrating seasonally with their cattle. In the past, for centuries, many different nomadic tribes lived in the region.

The name Karakalpak – or Qaraqalpaq – originates from “Qara”, which means black, and “Qalpaq”, meaning hat. For more about the Karakalpak people and the history of Karakalpakstan please see history resources.

The drying up of the Aral Sea affected the local communities of Karakalpakstan tremendously. The people of the region have seen their health, economy and wellbeing challenges as the Aral Sea dried and the Amu Darya delta changed. Many health indicators, including rates of maternal mortality, respiratory and diarrhoeal disease, are high, and are worse in Karakalpakstan than the rest of the country (Socio-economic features of improvements for nosogeographical situation Republic of Karakalpakistan)

The economy was mainly tied to fishing industry and agriculture. With the desiccation of the Aral Sea and its hypersalinization, fish disappeared from the South Aral Sea. The sea regulated the climate and meteorological conditions. Hotter summers and colder winters have led to a less efficient agriculture industry. Nowadays, 85% of Karakalpakstan’s territory is a desert. The Aralkum desert, the world’s youngest desert, covers the most land, but also the Ustyurt Plateau is significant. For the residents of Karakalpakstan, it has been a massive change as they were relying on water from the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya.

For these reasons, manyresidents of Karakalpakstan decided to leave the region. The estimated number of displaced people due to the environmental disaster in the overall Aral Sea region during the 1980s and 1990s was more than 100,000 (UNHCR. CIS Conference on refugees and migrants, 30-31 May, 1996, Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva: United National High Commissioner for Refugees, 1996).

Many locals stayed in the region even after the Aral Sea disaster. They had to adapt to their new living conditions and survived thanks to their resilience and positive initiatives. As an example, in replacement of the fishing industry, local communities harvest artemia in the Aral Sea. Artemia is a brine shrimp which has the capacity to live in hypersaline water. Some of the former fisheries have been adapted to this new industry.

In the last several years, a policy of social and economic development has been implemented in the region. Schools, universities, hospitals, service facilities and infrastructures have been built. The number of operating enterprises in the region increased by 54% between 2016 and 2020 and 1719 km of water supply networks were laid and repaired in the same period of time (Center for Economic Research and Reforms – CERR).

More than a symbol, Moynaq, a former port town which is now 200 kms from the Aral Sea, is now titled the “ecological capital of Uzbekistan”.

Karakalpakstan is not generally a place for a tourist to discover since it’s a 16-hour train ride from Tashkent, but it is definitely worth visiting and discovering their rich culture, heritage and kindness.