In 1971, geotechnical engineers tapped into the freshwater aquifer beneath the Senek and piped it towards Zhanaozen’s oil fields. Over the years, this has led to a drop in the water table and consequently killed off vegetation, which is crucial to stabilising the sand. As a result, the dunes have grown in size –sometimes reaching 25 m high– and begun encroaching on Senek village, sometimes at a rate of 100 m per year. Seventy-five kilometres to the north-west, the same issue exists between Ushtagan village and the Sauskan Sands, and Tushikuduk village and the Kyzylkum Sands on the Buzachi Peninsula.
Some residents even report entire villages disappearing under the shifting sands. In a 2014 Qazaq TV interview about desertification in Mangystau, an older Ushtagan resident said, “When I come here, I sometimes think that my childhood was only in my dreams. There was my house, we had neighbours and played with children in our garden. There were two big trees and my father tied a swing between them. All children came to play at our house. Now I have nothing to remember from my childhood. There was nothing left. All was swallowed by sand.”
Fortunately, Kazakhstan’s Institute of Chemical Sciences stepped in to tackle the problem by offering to plant saxaul, to act as a barrier against the dunes. They also created ‘Superhuman’, an environmentally friendly fertiliser derived from brown coal that improves the root systems and growth of saxaul. A similar initiative is in place around the Aral Sea region—according to a BBC interview with Orazbay Allanazarov, a forestation specialist, one fully grown saxaul tree can fix up to 10 tonnes of soil around its roots.
From Aktau, drive 2 hours east to Kyzylsay village (aka Uzen) via Zhanaozen. Once there, follow the signs for Senek, which is 30 km to the east. The turnoff for Shopan-Ata is midway along this road too. The dunes are north of the village and less than a kilometre to the southeast is Senek necropolis, which has graves dating back to the 17th century, 30+ saganatam, three domed mausoleums and a handful of kulpytases and koitas.
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