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What Happened to the Aral Sea?

By Edited Jun 14, 2016 4 5


The climates of the world are changing. Previously dependable rains are failing as weather patterns become unpredictable, and many areas of the world are threatened with devastating drought.  In addition, individuals are using more water. In fact, the United Nations estimates that the world's water usage is growing twice as fast as its population.

Water droplet

Yet we continue to mismanage the precious water resources which we depend on for survival. I have seen places in California where farmers cannot water their crops while California golf courses are kept green and lush. I have seen new housing development in Southern Arizona built over a rapidly falling water table with no-one giving a moment's thought to what will happen when the water supply fails.

But anyone who takes water for granted might learn a lesson from what has happened to the Aral Sea. Situated east of Turkey and north of Afghanistan, the Aral Sea straddles the border between two little known countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which were once part of the former Soviet Union.


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Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

In the 1960s the Aral Sea was an enormous landmark on the globe. It was the world's fourth largest lake. The ground around the lake was covered with healthy vegetation which supported a variety of wildlife. The lake played an important role in maintaining a temperate climate in the region, and supported a thriving fishing industry with an annual harvest of 44,000 metric tonnes of fish.

Aral Sea from Space 1997

The Aral was a slightly saline lake which, although it had a large surface area, was also very shallow with an average depth of only 16 meters. A fifth of the water in the lake came from rainfall. The rest came from two rivers, one flowing in from the north and one from the south, which had been used for irrigation since ancient times.

In the 1960s, the Soviet government diverted the two rivers flowing into the lake in order to develop agriculture, particularly the growth of cotton, in the surrounding desert. While cotton is an excellent cash crop it is also a thirsty one which requires copious irrigation. The water level in the lake began to drop and, because it was relatively shallow, the Aral began to shrink drastically. By 1987, 27,000 square kilometers of former lake bottom had become dry land.

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right)

With the rivers diverted, water evaporating from the lake was not replaced and the salt dissolved in the water became more concentrated. As the water became more saline, fish began to die. By 1980 the fishing industry was completely destroyed leaving behind the rusting and abandoned fishing vessels of unemployed fishermen lying like ghost ships on the dried up lake bed.

Moynaq Aral Sea

As the lake shrank, its ability to moderate the climate lessened. Summers became shorter and hotter, winters became longer and colder, rainfall decreased and winds became stronger. The evaporating lake water left salt deposits behind which were picked up by the wind and dropped onto farmland. It has been estimated that 43 million metric tons of salt was blown off the lake bed between 1960 and 1984.  The salt poisoned soil, making it unsuitable for either pasture or crops, and many areas of previously fertile farmland became salt marsh. The salt spread far and wide. It has contributed to glacial melting and been carried as far north as the Russian Arctic.

The combination of decreasing rainfall and salting of the soil led to soil erosion, increasing desertification and yet more dust storms. It has been estimated that salinisation and desertification have destroyed six million hectares (23,166 square miles) of farmland. To make their soil productive again farmers began using groundwater to flush out the salt. However, in the process they also washed away valuable nutrients, necessitating the heavy use of chemical fertilizers which pollute both the water and the air.

This pollution has caused health problems for over five million people.  Allergies and respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and bronchial asthma have become more common. The infant mortality rate in the region has increased, with respiratory disease being responsible for 50 percent of child deaths.  Anemia and cancer rates have also increased, while the poor water quality has brought an increase in water borne illnesses such as typhoid, typhus, and paratyphoid.


Adventurer George Kourounis Tours the Aral Sea

When the lake began to shrink there was an obvious problem, but very little will to resolve it.  The governments of the states around the Aral Sea basin agreed on a plan, but after the collapse of the former USSR their economies failed and they simply could not afford to implement the solution they had agreed upon. Because of the economic importance of cotton to the region, they continued to divert the rivers feeding the lake.

There are signs of hope, however. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea was founded to identify solutions to this horrendous problem.  Thanks to the IFSA, ecosystems are being restored in some areas, and the health of people in those regions is improving as air and water quality improve. The rate of water loss has decreased since the 1990s and there are predictions that the Aral Sea may at least partially recover.

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The villains in the story of the Aral Sea include climate change, population growth, economic development and the mismanagement of water resources. These villains also appear in other areas of the world. Lake Chad in West Africa, for example, has shrunk 95 percent since 1963 because of massive irrigation projects. Climate change, overgrazing and deforestation have added to the problem. Europe is increasingly experiencing water scarcity and drought even, surprisingly, in northern European countries such as the UK and Norway which have relatively wet climates. California has been in a drought situation for the last five years and the entire south western United States is poised on the brink of a drought of epic proportions.


Carcasses of sheep and goats amidst a severe drought

Water may also become a political issue. Ethiopia plans to dam the Blue Nile in hopes of preventing the famines it experienced in previous decades. Egyptians, on the other hand, see the damming of the Nile as a threat to their very existence.

Governments, business and individuals all need to play a part in using water smartly and efficiently. As the world's population continues to increase people around the globe must work together to conserve and manage our finite supply of precious fresh water so that there is enough for all.

The challenge we face now is how to effectively conserve, manage, and distribute the water we have.




May 18, 2015 7:04am
While this tends to be part of a bigger picture issue hardly anyone in the general reading public knows about the Aral's condition outside those immediately affected. Good topic choice, good feature. Thumbin'.
May 18, 2015 8:17am
Excellent read. I knew of this region, but not of the issues you describe that have transpired in recent decades. Thanks for a very informative piece.

Relating to water, I was just reading an article last week about how Walmart is selling bottled water that comes from California municipal water supplies. Apparently, farmers have to do without water, but there is little legislation around the bottled water industry.
May 18, 2015 9:17am
I had never heard of what happened to the Aral until I had a student in my class from Khazakstan who showed me some pictures. I was horrified!

Also, Leigh, about companies selling water, we have the same situation here in B.C. Nestle has been taking free water from a local waterfall to bottle and sell. The government has now decided that they should start paying but is charging them basically peanuts (probably because they are afraid if they charge them serious money they might just decide to go somewhere else).
Jun 10, 2015 6:40am
Great read Lesley. I was appalled to learn that it took until 2010 for safe, clean drinking water to be declared a human right by the UN.

The situation in California will affect crops and food supplies everywhere in North America. The Aral Sea and Lake Chad are prime examples of how extensive the damage is when natural bodies of water are sucked dry. I don't think most people realize how negatively impacted farm land and human health (and animal health) is by this type of thing. Sad.

And important to document.

Hope we can learn something from it all before it is too late. Water will be fought over in the near future, I fear.
Jun 10, 2015 9:52am
You're right, Rose, this is a very important environmental issue. Unfortunately carbon emissions and world hunger get way more attention from the media.
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  1. "The Aral Sea Crisis." The Aral Sea Crisis. 20/04/2015 <Web >
  2. "The Disappearance of the Aral Sea." Vital Water Graphics: United Nations Environmental Program. 20/04/2015 <Web >
  3. "History of the Aral Sea: from Antiquity to Present." CAWater-Info.net. 20/04/2015 <Web >
  4. "Freshwater Crisis." National Geographic. 23/04/2015 <Web >
  5. "Desertification in Europe." European Water Partnership. 27/04/2015 <Web >
  6. Peter Schwartzstein "Water Wars: Egyptians Condemn Ethiopia's Nile Dam Project." National Geographic. 28/09/2013. 27/04/2015 <Web >

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