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What Happened to the Aral Sea?

In today’s article we find out what happened to what was once the fourth largest lake in the world. It’s a sad story but there’s a glimmer of hope!

Central Asia’s Aral Sea used to be one of the largest lakes in the world, considered an inland sea, which was an integral part of fishing and leisure activities in the region. But, it’s not there anymore…

The Aral Sea Disaster

First let’s distinguish between a sea and a lake. It’s called the Aral Sea but it’s more of a lake really.

Let’s take a look at a definition for each word:

Sea – the salt water that covers most of earth’s surface and surrounds the masses of land. It’s only secondary in size to an ocean (for a body of water).

Lake – a large body of water that is surrounded by land. Usually fresh water but sometimes salty. These are ecosystems that contain biological organisms.

Ok, glad that’s settled. Let’s get on with the story.

The story of the Aral sea is one about greed and also climate change. As the sea slowly began to dry up, it became saltier; the fish couldn’t survive, the water literally disappeared, and it left a desert in its place. This all took just 40 years or so, and a 60,000-square-kilometer body of water literally turned into nothingness. Just 10% of the sea is left, but there are hopes that one day it will return. This is a manmade disaster.

Let’s look at the history of the Aral Sea a little more, and learn about where it is, or was.

The Aral Sea was located with Kazakhstan to the north, and Uzbekistan to the south. Back in the day, there were around 1500 islands which sat in the body of water, and two rivers fed it, namely the Amu Darya River and Syr Darya River. The region was once occupied by nomads who lived in the surrounding deserts, and there was a very active fishing industry which was fed by the fish found in the sea. The Aral Sea also had a lot of importance in terms of feeding the towns which made up the vital silk trading route.

aral sea ship stranded

As time went on, the sea began to show signs of disturbance. This was all down to over-consumption of the water from the sea, which began in the 1930s. Industries at this time demanded more water to power their machinery and factories, especially those manufacturing cotton. The Soviet government put a plan in place to irrigate the surrounding desert areas, and to divert the rivers which ran around it, to cultivate more in the way of rice, cotton, and melons. Canals and dams were built, but this led to a waste of water, of up to 30-70%.

The Kara Kum Canal for example, diverts 15% of the Amu Darya River to irrigate parts of the Kara Kum Desert. This is just one of many plans instigated by the Soviets to divert the tributaries of the Aral Sea. The Toktogul Dam is the largest of the dams that were installed and uses up much more water than the canal.

As the 1960s arrived, the Aral Sea showed signs of receding by around 60 cubic km of water. The water wasn’t running into the sea anymore, and instead was being diverted to the land to power factories and agricultural endeavors. Between 1961 and 1970, 20cm per year of water was disappearing. This also led to the entire surface area of the sea shrinking, and between 1960 and 1998, there was a 60% reduction overall.

By this point, it was no longer considered one of the world’s largest lakes and went down to No. 8 on the list (it was the world’s fourth largest lake in its prime). The land was able to be split into two parts by the shrinking water level; it was known as the Lesser Sea to the north and the Greater Sea to the south.

The Wider Damage

This rapid disappearance of the sea wasn’t just about a changing landscape, as it had a huge impact on the economy, especially for those who relied on fishing as a means of income. This was formerly one of the biggest employers in the Soviet Union, and the dwindling catch meant that jobs were no longer available.

AralSea-1989-vs-2014

Images of the Aral Sea taken in 1989 and 2014

Pesticides were used widely at this point, due to the boom in industry from neighboring factories, and this did nothing to help the fish that were still present in what was left of the sea. The sea became far too salty, and marine animals were unable to survive.

The ecosystem was basically destroyed, not only because of the pesticides running off the land into the water and affecting the soil in the area, but also because of a rise in weapons testing at this time. Salinity was shown to be 376g/l in 1990, when sea water showed salinity of just 35g/l. This shows the glaring changes imposed as a result of the focus on industry.

The land around the sea, and the desert, which was once the sea bed, was poisoned with chemicals and extreme salt. The pollution in the area was extremely high and those who lived in the area became ill, while also suffering from a lack of drinking water that wasn’t polluted by chemicals. In this region, there are higher rates of certain cancers and lung issues.

The Second Coming of the Aral Sea?

It’s a sad story, but there is a chink of hope on the horizon.

These days we are much more aware of climate change and manmade issues concerning the environment. This has led to efforts to try and turn back the clock.

aral sea ship graveyard

In 1991, when Uzbekistan gained its independence, the Aral Sea disaster was placed high up on the importance list. A few attempts to bring the situation back around didn’t work, but in 1994, several neighboring countries came together to create the Aral Sea Basin Program. This aims to rehabilitate the region, and the first part of the plan was put into place in 1992.

Progress has been slow and the Dike Kokaral was built in 2005. This dam helps to preserve water from the Syr Darya River, and it is hoped it can help to restore the ecology of the region to levels from the past. There are plans to build another dam to further push efforts forward to help the water levels rise, and to improve the overall quality of the water.

While it is going to take a good few years yet before there are any signs of hope and any major revival of the sea levels, the Aral Sea disaster is now being addressed with seriousness in mind, bringing attention to the fact manmade actions have a serious impact on the environment and our planet.


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Image Source: By NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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