Kazaly district of Kyzylorda region is located in the lower stream of Syrdarya River. Kazaly district is home to about 80 thousand people. The majority of the population lives in Aiteke Bi, a small town established around the railroad station. The railroad plays a major role in the local economy. The main livelihood of the rural population is rice cultivation, livestock breeding, fishing, reed harvesting, and melon gardens. 

The water from Syrdarya is primarily used for irrigation, however, up until 15 years ago, the river was also a source of tap water. The Baskara dam constructed in 1963-1970 is the main piece of hydrological infrastructure that diverts water from Syrdarya to the web of irrigation canals, flood beds, and river-fed lakes. Contrary to my expectation, the canals and irrigation ditches dated back to pre-Soviet times. The canals were dug out to divert water for irrigation from SD by local tribes (all belong to Kishi Juz). Those canals were later enlarged during the Soviet time. In vernacular speech, these canals are referred to by the name of the tribe that dug them. The stories of digging those canals are present in oral history, namely shejire (genealogy).

Syrdarya is often referred to as a landmark that creates two distinct socio-geographic areas, namely ‘Syr’ and ‘Qyr’, the former being an area along the banks of the river, while the latter being the Qarakum semi-desert stretching north from the river. Another desert, the Qyzylkum, lies to the south of the river. This Syr-Qyr division is used a lot to describe various things such as seasonal migrations, livelihoods and even to make jokes.

The portrait of the Syr Darya River ‘painted’ by people in Kazaly have a varying degree of detail. On a larger scale, the river appears more homogeneous and thus more ‘environmental and less of a technical system’, whereas on a small local scale the river is seen as a more complex enviro-technical system. Harnessing the river by building dams and dykes is usually perceived favorably by local people but heavily entrenched river lacks the grandeur of the ‘river back in the day’ when it used to flood twice a year. The flooding river seemed to have more respect and reverence. The more tamed Syr Darya gets, the fewer people who do not directly interact with the river notice it. Locals tend to remember better extreme events such as floods and droughts, although there has not been one in a while.

Construction of the Kazaly irrigation dam

In 2020, Kazaly dam turned 50! The decision to build three major dams on the Syr Darya River, i.e. Kyzylorda, Yana-Kurgan, and Kazalinsk dams, was made by the Soviets back in 1939. However, the construction of the Kazaly dam, which was named the “second giant” on the Syr-Darya, kept being delayed for various reasons and began in 1963, and was completed by 1970. According to the initial estimates, the building of the Kazaly dam would cost 13.2 million rubles, however, it ended up costing 17.1 rubles.

Kyzylordavodstroy trust served as the main contractor for building the dam. Oftentimes, the construction was slowed down by an irregular supply of cement, large-grade reinforcing steel, and other construction materials. On December 8, 1969, the river was dammed and the Kazaly dam entered a period of testing until October 8, 1970. No flaws were discovered during this period and on October 8, 1970 the Kazaly dam officially started its service. 

The Syr Darya has been an indispensable source of livelihoods for local tribes living along its banks. At the same time, the mighty and unpredictable waters of the river inspired artists, singers, and storytellers. For example, the local songs and legends tell about local people, animals of the Syr Darya, as well as about the river itself.

The Syr Darya has been an indispensable source of livelihoods for local tribes living along its banks. At the same time, the mighty and unpredictable waters of the river inspired artists, singers, and storytellers. For example, the local songs and legends tell about local people, animals of the Syr Darya, as well as about the river itself.

Tiger and Catfish 

(a folk tale from the Syr Darya Delta)

Even on a scorching sultry day
The cold can envelop
Left to us from our ancestors,
There are many traces full of secrets
Even if the century-caravan has passed,
Preserved in the mouths of the people,
Unforgettable on the banks of the Syrdarya
Here is such, here is such a legend.
Preserved in the mouths of the people,
Such a wonderful story
How can a heart not be agitated
When you hear her.
In the vicinity of the river,
In the old days
Along the banks of the Syr Darya
There were fat-necked menacing tigers.
The tigress had two cubs,
Born only, still blind,
They were hidden from the eyes of people
Dense thickets of reeds.
When the cubs are strong
And they began to walk more confidently
The tigress led the way
Tigers to the river for a watering hole.
Leaning against the water
Mother Tigress First
Drinks delicious water from the river
And her cubs are drinking nearby.
In one moment rose from the bottom
Huge catfish
And in a moment by the coast
There was a commotion …
Striking the tail of both cubs
Catfish swallowed both
And diving under the water
Sank to the bottom again
The tigress rushed after the catfish
And chased him
Until I run out of steam
I went ashore again.
In sorrow the days of the tigress
Passed one by one
The bitterness of the tigress
She gave her no rest
The desire for revenge burned inside
And she decided to take revenge
Lay down by the river and began
Wait for the appearance of a huge catfish
It’s been three days
The sun’s rays are braided into the sunset
There is still a hungry tigress
Growl with bitterness.
And a friend silted up water near the shore
Near the surface of the water
The back of a huge catfish sparkled
The tigress jumped up, gathering all her strength
And prepared to attack
She’s a predator
Having a lot of skills
She deftly jumped on the catfish
Grabbing a huge catfish by the back
Took him out of the water
And threw it ashore!
Washed ashore
The catfish lies panting …
Syrdariya flows nearby
Sighing at the sight
As for the offspring
Have to fight fate
Here she is, she, cursed,
A short life …
All around generously pour
The rays of the morning sun
The tigress kept the catfish all the time
While he is completely dead
But she died with him
Because when she threw away the catfish
The severity of the catfish was such
That the tigress’s vertebrae were broken…

The Syr Darya’s Beauty
Lyrics by Zeinolla Shukurov
Music by Shamshy Kaldaiakov

It flowed beautifully in the summer
I remember, beautiful Syr
I went there in the morning,
Wave-loving beauty.
I missed the shores of the Syr [darya]
The song moved my heart
May your dear son love you
Lush white rice fields
Sown for happiness.
Where are you, majestic beauty Syr [Darya]?
It would be like looking at the waves, Syr [Darya]
The secret soul of one gorgeous beauty
If it would irradiate water,
The brightness of her eyes.

Will that beautiful girl return from Syr [Darya]
Shining in the sun, her wavy hair?
Will she look at the shore
Swinging spikelets of rice?
The whole Syrdarya region praises that girl,
The boys sing her songs.
Her straight teeth are as white as rice
Her soul is more capricious than the Syr [Darya].

Reed economy of the river delta
Common reed plays an important role in local people’s livelihoods and economy in the Syr Darya delta. Summer reed is used for forage and is known as pshen in the local dialect. Winter reed is tied into tight bundles and is used for building houses and erecting fences. Winter reed bundles are called pashyn or shom. Many people tend to think of reed as a material of the past. Reed is not appreciated as much as it used to. For example, the owners of houses built with reed cannot get a loan, so many people opt for bricks or metal when building houses or erecting fences. Such a change is seen as a sign of “development”. At the same time in “developed” countries, eco-friendly reed houses may be valued more than brick or metal buildings. This gallery shows the role of the reed in the everyday life of delta communities and makes the case that the common reed holds great potential for becoming a building material of the future.