Valerie Kipnis is the 2023-2024 Above the Fray Fellow


NPR and the John Alexander Project are pleased to announce Valerie Kipnis as the twelfth recipient of their joint international reporting program, the Above the Fray Fellowship. Selected from a competitive pool of applicants, Kipnis will spend six months reporting from Uzbekistan on the human impacts of a human-caused ecological crisis: the disappearance of the Aral Sea — which was once the fourth largest lake in the world but has been disappearing since the 1960s — with economic and public health consequences still playing out today.

Since 2010, the Above the Fray fellowship has sent one promising journalist abroad each year to cover important, yet largely untold, stories. The program suspended travel in 2021 during the pandemic, returning in 2022 with a domestic-based fellowship. The 2023 fellowship marks a return to international reporting.

Once one of the world's largest lakes, the Aral Sea used to supply the Soviet Union with tens of thousands of tons of fish every year. But in the 1960s, after the Soviet Union diverted away rivers for irrigation and agriculture, its water levels dwindled. In the span of two decades — the sea became saltier, killing off fish and destroying the fishing industry. Efforts from bordering regions have varied, with very different outcomes on each side of the sea. In 2005, the government of Kazakhstan, with help from the World Bank, built a dam that rejuvenated parts of the lake — but mostly on the Kazakhstan side. On the Uzbekistan side — in the northernmost Karakalpakstan region — the Aral Sea still remained largely barren ... a basin with little water. Karakalpaks living around it have lost nearly all access to water, and along with it, agricultural farming, economic opportunities and their way of living. Over the years, desertification has profoundly altered the climate and there has been an increase in pollutants and toxic dust. Studies show that people there suffer from elevated rates of tuberculosis and cancer as well as increasing maternal and infant mortality rates — which are higher in Karakalpakstan than in the rest of Uzbekistan. At a time when climate change-related events are becoming more frequent, Kipnis will travel to Karakalpakstan to tell a cautionary tale: the long-term human costs of a water crisis.

Kipnis currently works as an associate producer for This American Life and previously as an Emmy-award winning producer at Vice News Tonight. She's a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and The New School's MFA Program. In 2021, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to Ukraine — which she completed in Poland.

About The Above The Fray Fellowship:

The Above the Fray Fellowship began in 2010 in memory of John Alexander, a young journalist who once worked for NPR and passed away of sudden heart failure while on assignment for the Koppel On Discovery series in Chongqing, China. Previous recipients have reported from Kiribati, China, Uganda, Cameroon, Réunion, Greenland, Georgia, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Japan and the American South. Details about the Above the Fray Fellowship can be found at To learn more about John Alexander, visit

About NPR:

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