Sea changes: environment and political economy on the North Aral Sea, Kazakhstan

Wheeler, William. 2016. Sea changes: environment and political economy on the North Aral Sea, Kazakhstan. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

The Aral Sea regression is globally famous as a devastating ecological disaster, though recently a dam has led to the partial restoration of the North Aral. These ecological changes have overlapped with the collapse of the USSR and resultant political-economic transformations. From ethnographic fieldwork in Aral’sk and fishing villages, and archival research, I argue that the sea’s regression and partial return cannot be analytically separated from political-economic processes of socialism and postsocialism. This study of the entanglements of environmental and political-economic change has, I suggest, implications for anthropological engagements with climate change.

Chapter 1 offers narratives of Soviet irrigation policies (which caused the regression) and of the construction of a socialist fishery, arguing that similar political-economic processes drove both. Chapter 2 explores official responses to the regression, especially importing ocean fish for processing in Aral’sk, and sending fishermen to fish elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Chapters 3 and 4 explore how these practices, and their cessation after the collapse of the USSR, shape local understandings of the regression. I thus decentre the environmental disaster narrative. Part 2 examines post-Soviet projects in the region, arguing that the disaster narrative, though partial, rallied actors and mobilised projects, including the dam, which have to some extent reshaped the region. Part 3 analyses the divergent outcomes of the sea’s return today. No longer embedded in the command economy, the sea is enmeshed in new sets of relations connecting fishermen, private actors, state and markets extending as far as Germany. Catch is limited, but over-quota fishing is widespread. For some fishing villages, this has led to new-found prosperity, with extensive ritual expenditure. However, because over-quota fish cannot be sold openly, they do not reach newly-opened factories in Aral’sk, where the sea is felt to be marginal and the fishing industry figures as a symbol of corruption.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, environmental change, disaster, climate change, political ecology, fisheries, fishing, postsocialism, Soviet Union, development, entanglement, resilience, vulnerability

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 October 2016

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Date Deposited:

29 Nov 2016 14:37

Last Modified:

12 Sep 2022 11:11


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