The draining of the Aral Sea was the product of one of those big ideas encapsulated in five-year plans and favoured by Soviet state planners in the 1960s. The mighty Syr Darya river was diverted into irrigation canals to feed cotton fields which in turn would transform the economy of Central Asia. Alas, the scheme coincided with the fashion for man-made fibres. The people of one of the poorest areas in the world never grew rich and, further downstream, the Aral Sea emptied to half its original size, destroying the local fishing industry and the lives of thousands of people who lived on its shores.
But this time, at least, the mayor, Aitbai Kuserbaliv, had something new to show. We arranged to meet on the helicopter pad the next day. Ten minutes into the flight over the old sea bed, now a tragic picture of salt marshes, marooned fishing boats and grazing camels, he pointed out of the window with excitement. "Look, it's come back." And sure enough, there was the glimpse of water and even a seagull gliding by.
"We had to take matters into our own hands," he explains. "All those experts came, made promises and never came back." Astonishingly, for the poorest region in post-independence, bankrupt Kazakhstan, the regional government and local people raised pounds 300,000 to build a 10-mile dam across the mouth of the Syr Darya. So far nine million cubic metres of water have been reclaimed, though this is at the expense of communities further south, who now receive not a drop from the trickle to which the Syr Darya has been reduced. Even the water Aral'sk has managed to capture is not yet enough to restore the fishing industry, but at least it covers the seabed close to the town, reducing the noxious clouds of salt blown over its inhabitants.
While salt pollutes the air, the water supply has been poisoned by the millions of tonnes of pesticides dumped on the cotton fields. In the maternity hospital in Aral'sk, Dr Kadyrbaev Amangeldy has packed nine pregnant women into wards designed for four. All are anaemic, and some have had eight, even 10, miscarriages. By ensuring that as many women in the region as possible get adequate food and clean water for the last few weeks of their pregnancies, he is hoping that more babies will survive in a region where the population is falling dramatically.
Wearing a faded green nightdress which enhances the paleness of her face, 35-year-old Banash Tapalova looks much older. "It's my ninth pregnancy and I have yet to give birth," she said. "We all have the sickness here. Now I am eight months pregnant again and very afraid."
Dr Amangeldy explains that people accumulate so much sand and stones in their kidneys from the polluted air and water that they bleed. "Women don't get enough protein from food grown locally to restore the damage, and the salt rots their kidneys, veins and wombs," he says. "Over the last 10 years, one-in-four babies have died." If his records are accurate, that is the highest infant mortality rate in the world.
The United Nations labelled the Aral Sea an "ecological disaster area", and "a fat lot of good it did us", says Mr Kuserbaliv, who has used his visit to the dam to check on the workers there. Funds have run out, and their wages have not been paid for several weeks. But at least they have hope, they tell him, a commodity which has become as scarce as fresh water .
The dam has broken several times in recent weeks, and earth diggers and lorries manoeuvre frantically in a race against time. "The World Bank came and did another survey the other day and said we would need $80m (pounds 50m) to finish the job," the mayor says. "We've run out of money, people are dying and they're going to hold a conference to discuss it."
We land in one of the many former fishing villages which now resemble desert oases, far from the reclaimed water. Three hundred families once lived here; there was even a secondary school and clinic. Now nearly everyone has left.
Two old men sit on their favourite vantage point, watching camels grazing where boats once lay at anchor. "Is it true that the sea is coming back? Have you really seen it?" they ask the mayor. "Yes, it is true," Mr Kuserbaliv replies. He cannot bear to tell them that all their hopes now rest with yet another conference of bankers, meeting 5,000 miles away.
Sue Lloyd-Roberts' film on the Aral Sea will be shown on `Newsnight' tomorrow.Reuse content