Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has shrunk by 90% over the past 50 years. Perhaps a paragon of unsustainable development and mismanagement, it has been described by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters’. Is there hope for the people and the environment affected by this calamity?
Located between the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, since the 1960s the Aral Sea has been shrinking due to intensive Soviet agricultural projects. Water from the two major rivers which supplied the inland sea – the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – was diverted using a network of canals in order to fuel cotton production in the region. These irrigation initiatives continued for decades, even after Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Subsequently, the inland sea has been starved and its volume of water has drastically decreased. According to the World Bank, ‘the sea level dropped by 16 metres’ between the years of 1960 and 1996. Compounding matters, the latest images released by NASA reveal that in August of this year, the entire eastern basin of the Aral Sea ‘has completely dried up for the first time in modern history’.
The port town of Moynaq
The once-prosperous Aral Sea port town of Moynaq (Uzbekistan) now lies more than 150 km from the current shoreline. I recently travelled to the region and witnessed a haunting, desert landscape which now engulfs the former sea-bed. My guide recalled the era of his childhood when the area was the source of a thriving community and fishing industry. It was a time when he would jump into the sea and play with his friends, a memory which the younger residents of the town would be unable to comprehend now. The sadness in his voice was clearly palpable.
Indeed, poignant reminders lie in the midst of this ecological catastrophe. Sea shells now litter the ground and fishing vessels are abandoned, left to rust in solitude in a post-apocalyptic graveyard. Moynaq once hosted 40,000 jobs but now unemployment and poverty are the primary concerns of the town’s declining population as it struggles to survive. The Amu Darya itself now peters out some 110 km away from the Aral Sea. Several canals designed to transport some of the water to the town are mostly ineffective, with the majority of the water fizzling out before reaching its destination.
Health and environmental effects
At a secret facility on an island in the lake, the Soviet Union tested biological agents including anthrax and plague. In 1971 an open-air test of a weaponized version of smallpox also seemingly led to a small outbreak in a Kazakh port town, an event in which 3 people died. As for the anthrax, a U.S. team apparently decontaminated its burial sites in 2001.
The retreating shoreline also allowed salty dust to be carried by the wind, which then contaminated soil, thus harming local agriculture. Pesticides and fertilizer also polluted the exposed lakebed and ‘became a public health hazard’. Furthermore, ‘the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country’, and the region’s residents are now far more susceptible to illnesses including cancer, lung disease, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.
NASA also reports that the tampering of the environment has affected the climate. The regulating influence of a large body of water is now absent in the region, making the summers hotter and winters colder.
Solutions? Or an irreversible calamity?
In 1986, part of the Aral Sea splintered from the main body of water. This area is located in Kazakhstan and is now known as the north Aral Sea. Thanks to a joint venture by the Kazakh government and the World Bank, efforts to restore this section were partly successful due to the creation of a dam in 2005. Since then water levels have risen, as have fish stocks. However, questions remain regarding the sustainability of this project. Fish catches may have increased annually, yet fishing regulations are often ignored and there are also concerns about how to best preserve these stocks.
In terms of the southern section of the Aral Sea, organisations including the World Bank are far more skeptical. Uzbekistan, rather than altering Soviet irrigation policies, has instead continued these processes to increase its cotton output, one of the country’s most profitable exports. As this fragment of the lake disappears further, the dream of salvaging this once flourishing region disappears with it.