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The Death of the Aral Sea
Nov 1, 2008

The Aral crisis is the best example of an ecological problem with serious social and economic consequences, directly or indirectly connected with all the states of Central Asia. The critical situation caused by the Aral Sea drying off was the result of agrarian economy tendency on the basis of irrigated agriculture development and volume growth of irrevocable water consumption for irrigation.

The Aral Sea was once the fourth biggest inland sea of the world, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (formerly in the Soviet Union). It moderated the inland climate for many centuries through water evaporation, which gave life to the surrounding deserts of Central Asia. The Aral Sea also was inhabited by more than one hundred fish species and supported productive fishing industries. Some fifty years ago the Aral Sea was surrounded by prosperous fishing towns like Moynaq.

The water area of Aral has periodically expanded and contracted in the course of history. These changes have affected the climate and the state of the region and led to important migrations in history. In spite of the massive glacier melting in the North and South Pole because of global warming, which would be expected to increase the level of inland waters, the Aral is rapidly losing its water. Because of poor environmental planning and the negligence of humans, the Aral Sea is now dying and according to the experts it will disappear in less than ten years.

The Aral Sea started to dry off in the early twentieth century. In 1918 Lenin decided that the only two water supplies of the Aral, the River Amu and the River Syr should be diverted for irrigation of the desert to increase land for agriculture. The idea was to boost agriculture, and this worked for a short period of time. The Soviets or Uzbekistan became the world’s largest exporter of cotton, which they referred to as white gold. The area of irrigated lands increased from 3 million hectares to 8 million. The population of the region increased from 7 million (1940) to 50 million (2000). At the initial stage of this project which seemed a brilliant idea at first sight, the irrigated land built up the economy of the Central Asian Soviet States and produced millions of jobs. Although, the result of the project was brief joy and success, the price of poor planning turned out to be by far too high.

First of all, the government had decided to grow cotton in a desert terrain. Cotton farming requires lots of water, which would not occur naturally in the desert. They also increased the production of other crops like water melons, cereal, and rice. Diverting the rivers cut the supply to the Aral Sea, and due to evaporation, it began to shrink. The first irrigation canals were initiated in the 1930s; however, these canals were poorly built, extremely inefficient, and wasted more than 50% of the water. Even today in Uzbekistan only 12% of canals are leakproof. The level of the sea has gone down constantly ever since; in the 1960s it became obvious that the sea level was falling; there was an average 20cm fall per year until the 1970s, when the fall became 50–60cm a year, and now it is 80–90cm a year. Especially in the period of 1960–1980 the diversion of water doubled, which reflected on cotton cropping as much as on the decreasing sea level.

The loss of water exposed the salty sea bed in the Southern Aral. Dust storms spread salty soil into the irrigated areas. Farmers tried to fight against salt contamination by flushing the soil with large volumes of water, which makes its way back to the sea. In addition, farmers used high levels of pesticides and fertilizers to increase the efficiency of crop production. However, these chemicals leave traces of nitrogen and other salts in high amounts in the soil. By flushing the soil with water to reduce salt levels, pesticides and fertilizers were also washed out and further polluted the sea.

Even more unsettling is that the Soviet government knew that they would lose the Aral Sea; in 1968 an expert said “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable”; and they also knew that fishing would be hit but the sad fact is that the government saw the Aral as an “error of nature.” The consequences of cutting the Aral’s water supplies and the irrigation of the desert were the beginnings of serious ecological and social problems in the 1960s. The sea was lost to fishing and transportation. This business of “killing nature” has not only affected the people living in the immediate vicinity of the sea. They did lose their jobs and they had to restart their lives, but the whole environment was affected too. Loss of water caused an increase in the overall salinity of the sea. Besides that, the bed of the sea, which held toxic chemicals and pesticides, was now revealed. The local drinking water is hence contaminated. The Aral was once the habitat of more than 120 unique species; now it has only thirty-eight. Being a heat reservoir, it had a cooling effect on the environment, but now the temperature can go above 120 degrees, winters still being harsh. Poisonous dust and salt storms take their toll. Infant mortality, tuberculosis, cancer and lung disease are thirty times higher than normal levels because the water is contaminated by fertilizers, pesticides and salt.

Currently the sea has lost more than 60% of its surface area and more than 80% of its volume; as of 2004 the salinity is 45g/l, normal value being 10g/l. While shrinking, it has split into two lakes, the North and South Aral Seas, now 95 miles away from Moynaq, leaving vast areas of salty desert behind. A BBC reporter said, “What appears to be snow on the seabed is really salt. The winds blow this as far as the Himalayas. The children of Moynaq have made a playground out of the wrecks of ships which might have provided food and a future for them.” The drying out of the Aral may lead to even more serious consequences in future if measures are not taken soon. First, increased temperatures may lead to the degradation of mountain glaciers. This could be highly dangerous for the region because the glaciers feed the River Amu and River Syr, and they are the only remaining storage for the supply of fresh water and moisture. Second, the Aral’s sea bed emits massive amounts of salt and dust into the atmosphere. Polluted air is carried over the area by a powerful air stream. Traces of pesticides and salt from the Aral region are now found in the blood of penguins in Antarctica. Moreover, the pollution affects areas thousands of miles away, such as the glaciers of Greenland and the forests of Norway.

In 2003 Kazakhstan decided to make this split permanent by building a dam (Kokaral Dike) between the northern and southern parts. The restoration effort focuses on the Northern Aral which is small and less polluted. This seals the fate of the Southern Aral, and is synonymous with its vanishing. The northern water supply, the River Syr has been restored and diverted back into the sea. Although it will not be the same again for sure, planners think that fishing will be rescued and the North Aral Sea will stabilize the climate by smoothing out the high and low temperature extremes and increasing rainfall. The efforts have helped to lower the salinity level which has even allowed the reintroduction of fishing in this area. The result is surprisingly encouraging. There are other proposals like diverting the Volga, Ob, and Irtysh rivers but this would be very costly and could cause yet another catastrophe.

This story has everything in it. Humans who disregard the ecosystem takes the gift in nature for granted. As we can see, however, nature is not infinite and it is breakable. Hundreds of years may pass until the region completely recovers. The magnitude of the disaster is comparable in scope to those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and might be even worse. This is a great example of short-term greed and ill-guided economic moves disregarding the whole ecosystem and bringing consequences which have to be dealt with in the long run. In this particular case, there could have been other ways to avoid the damaging decision to cut the water supply of the lake fully, such as relying on a different type of crop which requires less water, or making more efficient use of water, and so on.

This disaster is a single example of the type of global catastrophe we might encounter again in the future. This being so it should be kept in mind when we think of our future. A lot of the damage humankind causes might still be avoided if we act firmly and quickly. This is not just necessary for our grandchildren or our children but even for our own generation since the consequences of ecological destruction are being seen more rapidly now. The widely known global warming cannot be belittled, and, as the Aral Sea example might have taught us, the consequences can be terrible. It is likely that more such unpredicted events will afflict us. Added to this, there are water pollution, deforestation, and the destruction of wet-lands. Every day we hear or read about these consequences of negligence and greed. But these geographical features are all in perfect harmony, and we cannot rudely and unthinkingly destroy them. As Lester Brown comments, “Previous generations have always been anxious about the future, but we are the first who decide if the Earth inherited by our children will be inhabited.”

Timur Ceylan is an expert engineer at AMD Technologies, San Francisco.


  • National report: “On the environment state and use of natural resources in the Republic of Uzbekistan.” State Committee on Nature Protection of Uzbekistan. Tashkent, 1998.
  • K.Isentaev. “Geological structure and perspectives of oil and gas reserves of the Aral Sea.” Workshop report. Almaty, 1997.
  • Ministerial conference of Central Asia. “Assessment of the environment.” Aarhus, Denmark, 1998.
  • J. Mahambetova. Non-government union. “Aral tenizi.” Aralsk, 1999.