“Even a light wind picks up the salts and the dust and turns the air hazy, like heat shimmering in a mirage,” writes Marq de Villiers in his 1999 book Water. “When the winds are stronger, the white clouds drift higher and deeper and the sky is opaque like milk.” Farms nearby look like they’ve been dusted with white snow. If you drive to Muynak, once on the shore of the Aral when it was the fourth largest lake in the world, the view from the ridge is a depressing expanse of sand. Dilapidated husks of fishing vessels and barges and bones of cattle—detritus from a once thriving fishing culture—litter the desert. The Aral Sea has shrunk to a tenth of its original size in less than five decades, through the hubristic mining of inflowing water.
In the 1960s the Aral Sea, which ran the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in central Asia, was roughly half the size of England. Then the Soviet Union began diverting the two rivers that flow into the Aral Sea, the Amu and Syr, for irrigation to grow cotton and wheat. Now the Aral Sea is almost completely gone.
Aral Sea is an endorheic lake (a closed basin that does not flow into the sea). Watersheds of endorheic lakes are often confined by natural geologic land formations such as a mountain range, which cut off water flow to the ocean. Since the main outflow pathways of these lakes are chiefly through evaporation and seepage, endorheic lakes are usually more sensitive to environmental pollutant inputs than water bodies that have access to oceans, as pollution can be trapped in them and accumulate over time.
The Amu and Syr rivers provided the lion’s share of freshwater to the Aral in a system that covered 1.5 square kilometres and some 35 million people. When the Soviet Union left the region, it also abandoned the scattered republics (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgistan, and Tajikistan) to wrestle with the dregs of what some are calling a “quiet Chernobyl.” It is certainly one of the greatest recent ecological disasters created by humanity’s greed, hubris, ignorant politics and total lack of compassion—for other humans and for the environment.
There had always been some agriculture in the region, but the mostly nomadic people pursued small-scale farming with sustainable irrigation. The Aral remained untouched. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union expanded its cotton industry and within a decade, with the help of mechanized agriculture, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan became major growers of cotton, wheat and other food grains. Cornfields and cattle ranches appeared where nothing had grown before with the help of massive irrigation and diversion projects. Between 1956 and 1960 major canals were built to divert water from the Amu into the Usbek and Kazakh deserts, irrigating millions of hectares. But the rivers drained to a trickle and the massive lake shrank. By 1962, the village of Muynak, once an island on the Amu Delta, was a peninsula, fishing wharves and landing areas abandoned. A decade later, the nearest water was over 40 km away. By 1998, it was 75 km away. The Aral seabed had become a desert and 90% of the Aral Sea’s volume had disappeared.
By the late 70s the commercial fishery had declined by over 75% and then collapsed a few years later. Between 1987 and 1989 the water dropped severely, splitting the sea into two: the small northern Aral and the large southern Aral. Port towns were left stranded. Ecological effects rippled throughout the entire area as oases disappeared (with dropping water table) and wildlife with them.
The local climate changed, no longer regulated by the large body of water. The Aral Sea, like all great water bodies and their associated vegetation, provided a buffer for seasonal temperature fluctuations, buffering the winter storms from Siberia. The climate took on an edge and became unruly. With a vengeance.
The increasingly salty water concentrated fertilizers and pesticides. Salty contaminated dust blew off the exposed lakebed, estimated at about 40 million tons every year and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. It turned into a public health hazard, causing respiratory illnesses and cancers. The dust was reported as far away as Belarus, 2,000 km to the west, and in Pakistan to the east, writes de Villiers.
De Villiers writes of his experience some two decades ago in Bukhara, the capital of Uzbekistan: “I flew into Bukhara from Samarkand late one October afternoon on a rattling little Aeroflot flight out of Dushanbe. There was a dust storm in the region…The air was stifled by roiling clouds of sooty dust called a ‘black blizzard’ by the locals. Dust choked everything in the town. There was grit on the floors, grit on the hotel beds, grit in the cars, grit on the restaurant tables, grit in the food. The sun was still up, but it was already dark, like a badly lit film noir.”
In the early 1990s, the five Aral Basin states pledged to cooperate to save the Aral Sea, although little was actually done. However, in 2005, Zazakhstan built a dam in an attempt to refill part of the sea, which has somewhat revived the fishing industry and resulted in slight water level rising. If restoration efforts continue, “A substantial recovery might be achieved within 20 years,” says the United Nation’s Environment Program, “although, it is doubtful that the Aral Sea will ever be restored to the conditions that existed before the large-scale diversion of its inflowing rivers.”
Brian Clark Howard reported in the October 2, 2014 Issue of the National Geographic that the Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin was dry for the first time in 600 years. This thanks to continued irrigation and recent droughts—partly due to local climate change as a result of human-created desertification. Recent images from NASA revealed the complete loss of the eastern lobe of the sea.
De Villiers, Marq. 1999. “Water”. Stoddart. 422 pp.
Howard, Brian Clark. 2014. “Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin Is Dry for First Time in 600 Years”. National Geographic. Online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141001-aral-sea-shrinking-drought-water-environment/
Liston, Enjoli. 2014. “Satellite images show Aral Sea basin ‘completely dried’ ”. The Guardian. Online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/01/satellite-images-show-aral-sea-basin-completely-dried