Ghost fishing villages. Camels where blue waters once flowed. Ships stranded on toxic sands. A populace afflicted by poverty and disease. That’s a current picture of what the area around the Aral Sea looks like today; in less than fifty years it was transformed from a mighty lake into a wasteland. It has the textile industry to thank.
Once the fourth largest lake in the world, fed mainly by snow-melts and precipitation, the Aral Sea measured a majestic 66,100 square km in surface area and boasted an average depth of 16m and maximum depth of 68m (as of 1963).
The Aral Sea was fed by two of Central Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. 1/6th of the Soviet Union’s fish catch came from the Aral Sea. Surrounded by prosperous towns, the waters supported extensive fishing communities and a temperate oasis in a mostly arid region of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In the 1920s, when Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets decided to irrigate cotton and wheat fields and turn arid, sandy land into one of the world’s greatest cotton growing regions. They built an enormous irrigation network, including 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and more than 80 reservoirs.
Decision makers knew that this would shrink the Aral sea to a residual brine lake but they prioritised the benefits of increased agricultural output against the ecosystem benefits of the sea.
While the desert blossomed, the rivers drained to a trickle and the Aral Sea began to shrink in the 1960s. By 2007, it had shrunk to 10 per cent of its original size. Two small lakes, the North and South Aral, were all that was left of the Aral Sea.
Sadly, that was only the start of a downward spiral.
FISHERIES AND SHIPPING: As the water dried up, salinity of the water increased from 10 g/l and as much as 100 g/l in the southern Aral. The increasing level of salt in the water caused millions of fish to die. Fishing in the Aral Sea ceased. Shipping and other water-related activities declined.
TOXIC DUST: Huge plains that were once isolated and used for biological weapons testing, industrial projects, and dumping grounds for pesticides and fertiliser were exposed to the air and the wind, which would carry toxic dust to settlements of people.
DOMESTIC ANIMALS: About 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand, carried by the wind from the Aral Sea region every day affected the number of domestic animals in the region so much that the government issued a decree to reduce the slaughter of animals for food.
PLANT & ANIMAL SPECIES: Plant species tolerant of dry and saline conditions replaced former vegetation of trees, bushes and tall grasses, called Tugay complexes, that had stretched along the rivers and distributaries. Tugay complexes were habitats for a diversity of animal life including 60 species of mammals and over 300 types of birds.
DRINKING WATER: The quality of drinking water declined due to increasing salinity, bacteriological contamination and the presence of pesticides and heavy metals.
HEALTH: The population suffered from acute health problems owing to polluted air, water and poorer diets due to poor quality of fish and farm produce. The incidence of anaemia, cancer, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, viral hepatitis, tuberculosis and throat cancer was found to be three times the national average in some areas.
AGRICULTURE: Polluted water ran into lowland reservoirs causing secondary salinisation and making irrigation less effective. Crop fields had to be provided more and more water for irrigation.
DESERTIFICATION: Declining ground water levels, caused by the falling level of the sea led to desertification.
CLIMATE CHANGE: The climate of the region changed drastically. Winters became colder, summers hotter and the growing season shorter. All this caused an exodus of people from the area.
Backed by international concern, a project supported by the World Bank and the Government of Kazakhstan was initiated in 2003 to mitigate the environmental damage, sustain and increase fishing and agriculture and secure the existence of the Northern Aral Sea, also called the Small Sea. This included:
Restoration of the Southern Aral did not meet with success due to large amount of river inflows being diverted for irrigation by countries upstream, the economic benefits of oil and gas deposits discovered in the region and the political divisions arising from the sea lying in two countries.
The Small Sea, which was over 80 km away from the fishing village of Tastubek in 2010, lies only 10 km away in 2016. According to reports, more than 15 kinds of fish have reappeared in the Small Sea. Consequently, fishing production has expanded from 600 tonnes in 1996 to 7,200 tonnes today.
With constant annual flows into the sea over many years, expectations are that:
Heartening as these successes are, experts clarify that we cannot save the Aral Sea. We can only restore a part of the sea and undo some of the damage caused by the ambition for cotton.
The toxic dust from the Aral sands has been found as far as Japan and Greenland and even in Antarctic penguins. Future generations across the world can do nothing but pay the price.
Hope lies in the fact that mankind has the choice to apply its technology, garner its political will and mould its social customs towards co-existing within the fine ecological balance of nature.
The Aral Sea disaster must force us to rethink our consumptive attitudes towards natural resources and the price we pay for short-term economic prosperity – a price so high that it threatens our very existence on this planet.