The Aral Sea of Central Asia has all but disappeared within the space of a generation. Writes international-aid consultant and debut author Ferguson, “the disaster was ultimately caused by the sort of mad obsession that lays claim to the human conscience when it carries out a murder.”
Murder figures heavily in these slow-moving pages: Toward the end of what has for Ferguson been an already bad year, 40-something Shakhlo Abdullayeva, his alluring raven-haired assistant, turns up dead, and he finds himself under suspicion of killing her. She has been but one of the long line of people skimming from the World Bank–funded Aral Sea project on which Ferguson has been fruitlessly laboring as a kind of p.r. flack: “The goal of the public awareness component,” he explains to the Uzbekistani cop who’s grilling him, “is to persuade the people of Central Asia that water has to be saved so that the Aral Sea can be saved.” Chalk up victim number two, the Aral Sea, condemned to death by the Soviet Union’s insatiable need for thirsty cotton, used in military uniforms, armaments, truck tires and other such strategically important things. It does not help that the cop laughs at him, like just about everyone else in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who, seeing the foreigners coming, nurse sugarplum dreams of siphoning off their funds, never mind all their good intentions. In the end, for many reasons, the project fails before Ferguson even has a chance to see the Aral Sea for himself. One agent of that failure is a memorably wily figure, an old-school apparatchik whose purpose in life seems to be to thwart Ferguson’s ambitions, and he does so with a single-minded purpose that, Ferguson hints, just may have had something to do with Abdullayeva’s death.
Serviceable but ponderous. Best for those engaged in humanitarian-aid and international-development work, but readers seeking depth on the Aral issue will do better to turn to Tom Bissell’s much superior Chasing the Sea (2003).