By Peter Finn, Washington Post Foreign Service
Tastupek, Kazakhstan - In the cool of one recent evening, after tending to his herd of 19 camels, Puzblay Seytpembetov and four companions pushed his small single-engine boat out onto the placid waters of the Aral Sea to lay fishnets. In the morning, he predicted, he would haul in flapping carp and pikeperch.
It is a daily task that until recently had seemed forever lost to the folly of humankind.
The Aral Sea, its sustaining rivers diverted to the irrigation of cotton fields, was for decades on an irrevocable course to death and desert. One of the 20th century's worst ecological disasters consumed more than half the sea's surface area and three-quarters of its volume, creating 13,000 square miles of dried-up wasteland. The shriveling sea bequeathed poisonous sandstorms, chronic health problems, dead fishing grounds and unemployment to this part of southern Kazakhstan.
But now the sea, or at least a rump part of it, is coming back, retracing its destructive retreat and offering villagers such as Seytpembetov nothing less than renewed life.
"It's good to be back on the water. I'm happy for that," said the weather-beaten fisherman, who turned to camel herding when the shoreline withdrew. "I'm happy for that. But it's not the sea it used to be. That's the truth."