The River of Hope
Who and how does save Syr Darya river — «Tiroz» report
The longest river in Central Asia is Syr Darya. Half a century ago the river contained ten times the volume of water it has now, and the annual industrial fish production was almost 300 tons. Today, there are almost no fish — the number and type of species has drastically decreased. In Tajikistan there has been a program in place for the last decade on fishery development, and there are many efforts being taken to restore the population of commercial fish species across the region.
Fifty-five-year-old Nabidzhon works as an accountant in Khujand, but he considers fishing to be his true calling. Every day for the past 40 years he fishes in the Syr Darya, a river near his home. People living along the banks of the Syr Darya were always engaged in fishing and hunting, mostly for their families, and any surplus was sold in the market. Nabidzhon recalls a time when he would catch carp and walleyes so large it was difficult to drag them to shore.

This was a time when the river was so abundant with different kinds of fish that would “jump into [his] hands." Now, it's a different story. With increased pollution and decreased water levels, the number of fish have been dwindling. “Some days there is almost no catch," complains Nabidzhon, “Even if we do catch something it is only small fish, and we release them back into the water."
Locals report that fish appear in the spring, but their numbers decrease by fall. This is mainly caused by the pollution and pesticides fish get exposed to. For example, carp often swim in pesticide-treated rice fields and die. As one fisherman shares, "In the fall I see islands with dead fish and swarms of mosquitos start appearing; this becomes a health hazard for us."

Since the middle of the last century, the entire length of the Syr Darya river has been actively used for household needs. The current volume of runoff at the estuary has decreased more than 10 times – from 400 cubic m/s to 30 cubic m/s (compared to the period before 1960). About 700 channels along the river withdraw its water to the fields and industries.
Syr Darya is the longest river in Central Asia (2,212 km). It flows through the territory of three states: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The origin of the waters is predominantly glacial and rain. The river is wide but shallow, therefore navigable only in the Kyzyl-Orda area in Kazakhstan. At one point in time it used to flow into the Aral Sea.
Large-scale fishing in Kairakkum reservoir (it stands on the Syr Darya River) began in 1957, when 29 tons of fish were caught. During the Soviet years, the river economy here was considered exemplary.

Every year more and more fish are caught here: by 1965, the catch was 273 tons. According to experts, the increase in volume was due to increased erratic fishing. This particularly affected the carp population.

In 1970, carp practically disappeared in the reservoir and even today stocks of the main commercial species have been destroyed. This led to a five-year ban on carp fishing.

Despite efforts to reintroduce the species through artificial reproduction in the Kairakkum reservoir, another ban was enacted in 2013.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin went fishing here with regional officials

Gafur Karimov
In the upper reaches of the Kairakkum reservoir the amount of silt already exceeds all conceivable scales: today its volume is more than 1 billion cubic meters. The main spawning grounds for fish are here. When the water level drops, they completely dry out. Of course, we must clean these areas ourselves, but at the same time we can't do that without support from the regional or even global level.
In Tajikistan, after the breakup of the USSR, almost all fishing enterprises have reduced the pace of work. Even 10-15 years ago there were many commercial species in the Syr Darya: carp, catfish, asp, royal fish, barbel, bream, pike and perch were usual inhabitants of the river. Today the number of species has greatly decreased. Experts cite several reasons.

The present threat to Syr Darya fish stocks is pumping stations which are not equipped with barrier devices in the area of water intake. They suck in the fish completely, and then throw them with water directly onto the rice and cotton fields. About 34 pumping stations of different capacities are located along the river line in Tajikistan.


Significant harm to the biodiversity of Syr Darya is caused by fishing nets. Recently, a new type of poaching has appeared: at night they go out on boats, turn on spotlights or lanterns and attack the dazzled fish that are spawning with harpoons. Some poach with electrical fishing rods, killing not just fish but any other creature within the area covered by the electrical impact. Only recently in 2016 did the Tajik Fishery Supervision make any protocols around poaching.

Household waste, industrial waste and sewage are the main sources of pollution in Syr Darya. Fishermen regularly find undigested pieces of garbage in the stomachs of floodplain fish.
Serious damage is caused by reverse drainage from the fields when pesticides and agricultural waste mix into the river.

According to experts, another reason for the decline in the population is that hydroelectric power stations block fish migration routes to spawning sites and change the natural environment in which they live. Because of this, many species today appeared in the Red List of Threatened Species, while others have completely gone extinct.
Eastern bream
It inhabited the Aral Sea from until it disappeared as the ecological crisis developed. Eastern bream currently inhabit the plains of various types of reservoirs of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins.
Syr Darya shovelnose
Can be found in the streams up to lower Kara Darya. After the construction of the channel water reservoirs, the water in the Syr Darya has become much clearer which adversely affected the shovelnose—it almost disappeared in the middle reaches of the Syr Darya. The last mention of catching the shovelnose was referenced in the late 1960s to early 1970s.
Aral barbel
Found in the Aral Sea basin (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) and Chu River. Dams that were constructed on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya have blocked the barbels’ possibility for spawning migrations, which undermined its numbers in the Aral Sea. Now it inhabits large reservoirs of Amu Darya.
Turkestan barbel
In the past, it was found occasionally in the Aral Sea, inhabited mostly the rivers, and now inhabits the plain regions of the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Zarafshan and Kashka Darya basins. This fish dwells mostly in the rivers and reservoir canals.
Aral acipenser nudiventris
In the territory of Uzbekistan, this fish could be found in the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. After construction of irrigation canals it entered the basin of the Zarafshan and Kashka Darya rivers. As the ecological crisis advanced it disappeared from the Aral Sea. Up until the end of the 1980s it was found sporadically in the basin of the middle and lower sections of Amu Darya.
Pike asp
In Syr Darya pike asp could be found from Kara Darya to Chinaz and were seen in Chirchik. Pike asp do not appear in lower Syr Darya or the Aral Sea. As a result of hydro construction, it penetrated the lower reaches of Zarafshan, but due to changes in the hydrological regime it practically disappeared from the Syr Darya.
Disrupting the ecosystem of the river leads to deterioration in the quality of water that is used for drinking. The absence of fish, as experts note, provokes growth in the number of malaria-transmitting mosquitos in many coastal areas.

The state is working to address this issue: new fish farms are being opened in an attempt to rebalance the river ecosystem.
In the upstream of the river in the Sughd region, businessman Abdurasul established a fish farm. The foreman of the farm, a man named Zainiddin, supports Abdurasul in fishery. During Soviet times, he used to work on the Kairakkum Reservoir, and after Tajikistan adopted the government's program for the development of the fishing industry, Zainiddin was able to put his skills to use on the fish farm. For him, fish growing is not just a professional occupation; it is a personal contribution to the conservation of the living environment of the Syr Darya.
To breed new species of fish and restore endangered ones, eggs were imported from other countries to Tajikistan and new technologies were introduced: modern incubation devices were installed, cage lines were organized, and the process of feeding was changed. The main objective is the creation of a genetic bank of various species of fish that can be used to restore the natural biosphere in this part of Syr Darya.
The government's program on the development of the fishing industry in Tajikistan has been extended until 2020 and will carry out the following tasks:

  • Increasing the area of fisheries up to 15,000 hectares

  • Breeding purebred species of fish for the reproduction of endangered species

  • Enforcing tighter security and more protection, especially against poaching

  • Equipping pumping stations with effective fish screens

The goal of the program is to increase the number of fish in new fish farms (ponds, cages, basins and commercial fish farms), regardless of the form of ownership. There are around 30 farms around the republic similar to Abdurasul's. These farms are only solving the problem of increasing the fish population, but for fish to get acclimated in the river, system changes are also necessary. Therefore the main underlying goal is to clean the river and use water rationally.
In Tajikistan, the state notes that these goals should not just be the concern of one country, but that this initiative should be divided between other countries of Central Asia. Water usage along the Syr Darya for agricultural and domestic needs has been a contentious issue between Central Asian countries for many years, so coming to an agreement on water usage in different parts of the river is a difficult task.

Yusup Kamalov
ecologist, chairman of the Union for Aral Sea and Amu-Darya Protection
There is a need in a common regional approach that would address the problem of river pollution. A regional project to stop waste tipping and start restoring forests along the rivers would be easily implementable from all perspectives. Such project would result in the reintroduction of fish. It would allow for an artificial enhancement of populations of endangered species.

Gafur Karimov
To restore the species of fish included in the Red List, it is necessary to consider this task not only at the level of Tajikistan. It is a problem of all Central Asian republics. We must agree on rational use of water resources. We must ensure that fish populations can freely migrate to the Aral Sea and return back for breeding in all transboundary waters.
People involved in this project:
Kommersant.uz (Uzbekistan): Dariya Osmanova, Romina Tulyakova, Saida Sulaimanova
Tiroz (Tajikistan): Hurshed Ulmasov, Sultondzhon Usmanov, Natalia Dorofeeva
Yntymak (Kyrgyzstan): Asanbek Karakozuev, Alisher Isamov, Kubanych Zhusanov, Zhanybek Derkenbaev, Adina Dosumbetova, Aleksandr Shabalin