Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 - 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

Two Rivers (2007 – 2011) by an American photographer Carolyn Drake is a fascinating, long-term documentary project following the 2,500-kilometre route of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers across five post-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Although the title suggests the series tells the story of the rivers, it really is a project about a mass-scale ecological catastrophe. Even more so, Two Rivers is about madness, short-sightedness, and a drive for ever bigger short-term profits in a complete disregard for the long-term future. All this (and more) in a moment…

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 - 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

Apart from being two main rivers of the region, Amu Darya and Syr Darya occupied a special place in the history and culture of the civilisations that flourished on their riverbanks. During the classical antiquity, they were called Oxus and Jaxartes while the Medieval Arabic sources named them as two out of four rivers flowing in the Garden of Eden. Parts of the Silk Route – connecting Asia and Europe for centuries – followed the course of the sister rivers. Years later they were to play another important role…

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 - 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

After 1922, when the Central Asian territory was ‘united’ by the USSR, the Soviet government had a special plan for the rivers. Soon after the creation of the Soviet Union, it was decided that most of the water flowing through the rivers into the Aral Sea (then fourth largest lake in the world) would be diverted to irrigate a desert. The grand plan was to turn the dusty, arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into big-scale cotton plantations. Cotton – or the ‘white gold’ as it was called by the Soviets – was meant to become the economic base for the republics. Thus in early 1960s started one of the most complex engineering projects in the world history, which, however, proved to have dire consequences for the five republics and their inhabitants for many years to come.

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 - 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

The amounts of water diverted regularly from Amu Darya and Syr Darya were so unsustainable that the Aral Sea started shrinking already few years after the project commenced. In 1991, ‘[w]hen Moscow’s rule ended – as Carolyn explains – five new Central Asian nations appeared, burdened with failing economies, incongruous borders, and a growing environmental crisis.’ By 2007, Aral Sea declined to 10% (!) of its original size; its shrinking has been called one of the worst ecological catastrophes of our times. Most of what remains now of the Aral Sea are murals or exhibits in history museums…

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 - 2011)

Carolyn Drake, Two Rivers (2007 – 2011)

Through a series of nostalgic landscapes, images of what remains of a once-flourishing ecosystem and portraits of people affected by the ecological crisis and its aftermath, Two Rivers  reveals everyday lives and struggles of the Central Asian post-Soviet nations. For me, however, Two Rivers by Carolyn Drake most of all stands as a stark reminder of what happens if the natural environment is abused and mismanaged at the whim of the powerful few.

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