Seen from space, the Aral Sea looks like a collapsed pair of lungs and a sliver of liver that have atrophied in the fierce central Asian sun. Once the world's fourth largest source of inland water, the lake has shrunk to a third of its original size in five decades and it was not so long ago that experts predicted its total demise by 2020.

But against the odds the tide appears to be turning in ecologists' favour and the sea staging an unlikely comeback. In a rare story of man remedying his past mistakes - at least in part - the Aral Sea is being gradually resuscitated and water is being pumped into its atrophied organism once again.

Experts concede that it is probably too late to save "the patient's" shrivelled lungs, giant basins of water that seem destined to shrink still further, perhaps resembling small gall stones before the last drop of water runs into the sand. But the sea's "liver" - a body of water known as the Northern Aral Sea after the original sea split into three parts - can, they say, be spared and enlarged and given a second lease of life few thought it would ever have.

The sea straddles two countries - Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - and it is the northern sliver, which is in Kazakhstan, that appears to have a future.

"The rebirth of the Northern Aral Sea is a good showcase project," Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, an expert in water problems at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Ogonok magazine. "It shows that if we fret about the environment and invest money, it is possible to get reassuring results. The loss of such a unique natural resource as the Aral would be a global tragedy. And it cannot be allowed to happen."

"Let the Aral die beautifully!" Grigory Voropaev, the architect of the hare-brained scheme that diverted the course of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, is reported to have said. Having swallowed their own propaganda about the boundless possibilities of Soviet power, communist planners are reported to have genuinely thought that the Aral Sea was "a mistake of nature" and that it was their duty to correct it.


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