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The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: A True Story About the Aral Sea Catastrophe

by Rob Ferguson

Imagine Lake Huron drying up and disappearing. That is what is happening in Central Asia to the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake and now number eight. The Aral is only 20% of its original size and may disappear altogether within 20 years. This catastrophe is due primarily to over-irrigation and poor water conservation in Uzbekistan and neighbouring states of the former USSR.

Former magazine editor Rob Ferguson worked as a “public awareness expert” in Uzbekistan as part of a $250-million project to save the Aral Sea. His job was to raise awareness among the Uzbekis about the crisis and to educate them on water conservation issues. The Devil and the Disappearing Sea is his record of the project’s many failures. It is a gloomy tale and judging by the waste of time and money outlined in the book, the Aral Sea is doomed to disappear. Throughout his one-year contract, Ferguson butted heads with Mr. G., the project head – the “devil” of the title. Little was accomplished.

Ferguson was told that he did not understand the people of Central Asia. And no real understanding of the people emerges in the book. Mr. G. and the other apparatchiks Ferguson meets are cartoon villains whose actions and motivations are never explained.

More troublesome is Ferguson’s reaction when a former team-member, who had been fired for theft, is killed. He seems almost pleased and indulges in silly speculations about the murderer’s identity. Tunnel vision may be inevitable after a frustrating year of politics and politicians in a foreign land. But it causes Ferguson to make the unwise choice of recasting a woman’s death and an ecological disaster into a sort of low comedy.

This is a cut-and-paste book that unsuccessfully braids bits and pieces of narrative with tourist ramblings and ecological doom. But the ostensible reason for the book – the Aral Sea itself – disappears early in the narrative. Ferguson never even visits it. The Aral Sea, he writes, lives in the imagination. Soon that is the only place it will live.