If you look up ‘Aral Sea’ in Wikipedia today (in 2021), the sea is written about in the past tense. The Aral Sea “was an endorheic lake,” its name roughly translating as ‘sea of islands,’ referring to over 1,100 islands “that had dotted its waters.” The Aral Sea is a sea no more.
In the 1960s the Aral Sea was roughly half the size of England and the fourth largest sea in the world; it ran the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in central Asia. 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, only half a century later, the Aral Sea is the Aral Puddle.
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. Exposure of he bottom of the lake has released salts and pesticides into the atmosphere, poisoning farmland and its people. “Carcinogenic dust blows into villages causing throat cancers and respiratory diseases,” reports The Guardian. Dilapidated husks of fishing vessels and barges and bones of cattle – detritus from a once thriving fishing culture – litter the desert. The Aral Sea had shrunk to a tenth of its original size in less than five decades, through the greedy mining of inflowing water.
The 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 km2 and some 3 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.
Agriculture had always been active 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 7 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 7% 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 increasingly salty water concentrated fertilizers and pesticides used to maintain high cotton yields. Because the Aral is a terminal lake, the pollutants never washed out; they’d sunk to the bottom sediments, now exposed. Salty contaminated dust blew off the exposed lakebed, estimated at about 40 million tons every year and settled onto fields, degrading surrounding soils. 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 shares his experience some two decades ago in Bukhara, the capital of Uzbekistan:
In the early 1990s, the five Aral Basin states pledged to cooperate to save the Aral Sea, although little was actually done. In 2005, Kazakhstan built a dam in an attempt to refill part of the sea, which has somewhat revived the fishing industry and resulted in a slight rise in the water level. 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.
The $86 million Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea project, funded by the Kazekh government and the World Bank focused on dike repairs and construction of a massive new dam, Kokaral, splitting the North and South Aral Sea. The dam is helping revive fish stocks through more water (an 18% increase in lake volume) and decreased salinity. Before the project, flounder was the only fish that could survive in the high-salinity of the North Aral Sea. By 2018 the lake supported bream, roach and pike-perch or zander. Unfortunately, illegal fishing threatens the fragile fishery from recovering.
“Today, the Aral Sea does not exist,” reported The National Geographic in 2018. “There are, instead, two distinct bodies of water: the North Aral Sea (also known as the “Small Sea,” in Kazakhstan) and the South Aral Sea (in Uzbekistan). The Aral Sea as a whole will never completely recover. The shoreline has radically changed, and the South Aral Sea remains almost completely dessicated.” There remain concerns that the sea is still being drained by agriculture and industry (mostly cotton growing), with few environmental controls.
The conventional cotton crop (as opposed to organic cotton) is a water-intensive crop that relies on pesticides. This puts the fashion industry (buyers of conventional cotton) squarely in the middle of this environmental disaster with world-reaching scope. Environmental advocate and physicist, Vandana Shiva said: “no species has deliberately designed its own extinction, but with industrial agriculture we have. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing human misery, enormous cost of life and gigantic environmental devastation.”
The worldwide movement to boycott Uzbek cotton (which apparently still uses forced labour to pick cotton) includes a demand for clothing manufacturers and retailers not to sell it. In 2014 Tansy Hoskins with The Guardian reported an insidious connection between the fashion industry, child slavery, and ecosystem collapse. “The environmental impact of losing the Aral Sea is not yet known [including global impact], what we do know is that the cotton that destroyed it, is cotton picked by forced labour and destined for [Western] shops.”
The Disappearing Aral Sea is a Global Problem
Before you think that the ecosystem collapse is restricted to central Asia, effects of the disappearing lake have been documented as far away as Scandinavia and Antarctica; toxic soils from the damaged Aral Sea basin are being carried by winds to the far corners of the planet. These soils team with carcinogenic pesticides and fertilizers (used in intensive agriculture to grow cotton for us to buy and wear). It isn’t just the cotton travelling hundreds of thousands of kilometres to reach us; these contaminated soils are travelling that same distance to reach you and me.
The disappearance of the Aral Sea as a regulating large mass of water has also impacted the regional climate of the area; it is harsher and far more unruly. To think that such a significant regional impact will remain regional is naive, particularly in view of how global climate interacts with regional climate through its sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Like A Butterfly in Peking, the effects of this significant environmental disaster will continue to ripple outward, a seismic wave of insidious and arcane consequence. Like global climate change itself.
What I do know is that we are all affected by the disappearance of the Aral Sea and we are all in some ways responsible.
This article is an updated excerpt from “The Story of Water” (La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water, Mincione Edizioni, Roma, 2016)
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.