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Now in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, government and Western officials have reversed what is considered one of mankind's greatest ecological catastrophes. It's the drying up of the Aral Sea. That was once the world's fourth largest inland body of water. Thanks to a recently built dam, part of the sea is returning and with it, life is returning to surrounding communities.

David Stern reports.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

DAVID STERN: This is what hope sounds like to hundreds of thousands of people living in west central Kazakhstan. It is a sound of water pouring to the sluices of the Kok-Aral Dam, part of an $86 million World Bank-funded project to bring life back to the Aral Sea. The sea is a catchword for one of the Soviet Union's most spectacular failures of trying to bend nature's will to the demands of a glorious Soviet future.

Soviet officials tapped heavily into the main river supplying the Aral to make the desert bloom and irrigate water-thirsty cotton fields.

By the 1990s, the Aral had lost more than half of its surface and 80 percent of its volume. Towns that stood on the water's edge found themselves as far as 150 miles away. Maraturu Muratov(ph), a local doctor, grew up in the main Kazakh port city of Aralsk, and remembers the sea's abrupt departure.

Doctor MARATURU MURATOV (Local Physician): We feel water - I don't see it disappear, we feel it, we know it about it, you know. We know because it was very fast in our eyes, before our eyes, you know.

STERN: With the Aral's vanishing came a host of economic, ecological and health problems. Fishing communities also dried up. The region suffered massive emigration. The storm saturate with salt and pesticides partially left over from the exposed seabed swept the land. Instances of tuberculosis, known as a poor person's disease, skyrocketed. But all these began to change five years ago. The sea shrank so much that it split into two parts, a larger portion in the neighboring West Pakistan and a smaller in Kazakhstan. Planners hit upon the idea of damming the water flowing from the smaller to the larger. The project succeeded. The lesser sea has risen 12 feet, and water has crept back to just a dozen miles from places that long ago forgot the sound of waves. Rain now falls regularly.

(Soundbite of rain and thunder)

STERN: I'm standing in the middle of an endless sea of grass next to a rusted out trawler named for the Ukrainian Sea of Kiev. Cows and camels graze around me. The sea began to retreat since 30 years ago. Now, they say, it may come back.

(Soundbite of noise)

STERN: In the gritty Kazakh village of Jambul, population 753, people are getting ready for the water's homecoming. Juxaby Tulumjan(ph) says that after a planned second dam is completed, his town will once again be nestled on the Aral shores. People are returning. Houses are going up. And in preparation for the numbers, he believes, will flock here, Juxaby is building a cafe and bathhouse. Hope, he says, has returned to Jambul.

Mr. JUXABY TULUMJAN (Resident, Jambul, Kazakhstan): (Through translator) We feel it in our lives. Everyone believes here when the water appears, everything will be good. We have water, we have electricity.

STERN: Kazakhstan's portion of the sea has become less salty, and schools of fish unseen for decades now ply its waters. With them, the local fishing industry is swelling. Idenvex Arsena(ph) fishes regularly on top of the newly built dam and earns close to $100 for three days work, a king's ransom in these parts. With the money, he says, he supports his wife and two small children.

Mr. IDENVEX ARSENA (Resident, Jambul, Kazakhstan): (Through translator) I will also fish in the winter. This is the only work there is. I've been jobless since December.

(Soundbite of music)

STERN: The local tuberculosis clinic in Aralsk is far less crowded than it was just a few years ago. Outside in the dusty courtyard, however, the remaining patients say that the life is improving, it is far from ideal. One of their number a tall real thin 20-year-old who simply gives his name as Togat(ph) says that if the sea returns, he hopes he can finally find a job. For the moment, he and his colleagues wile away the days under the merciless Kazakh sun, singing folk songs.

TOGAT (Resident, Jambul, Kazakhstan): (Singing) (Kazakh spoken)

STERN: For NPR News, I'm David Stern in Aralsk, Kazakhstan.

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