The Aral Sea is actually not a sea at all. It is an immense lake, a body of fresh water, although that particular description of its contents might now be more a figure of speech than an actual fact. In the last 30 years, more than 60 percent of the lake has disappeared! The sequence of images above, shows the dramatic changes to the Aral Sea.
HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? WHY DID THIS HAPPEN???
To grow cotton….
Beginning in the 1960s The Governments of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and some Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons of water to irrigate water intensive cotton fields.
The shores of the Aral Sea were once dotted with fishing boats, providing a livelihood for countless generations of Central Asians along what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake.
Al Gore mentioned the Aral Sea in his film An Inconvenient Truth, implicitly suggesting that the Aral was a casualty in global warming. He was correct that human ignorance led to this environmental catastrophe, but it is unlikely that global warming has much to do with the shrinking of the Aral Sea.
The remaining water of the Aral is polluted in many areas almost beyond human use, filled with agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, and chemical and biological contamination from Soviet weapons testing. Much of the exposed seabed evolved into immense plains of dust and salt, and health problems abound for people living near the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea WAS maintained by its tributaries and used to receive about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. By 2007 it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into three separate lakes, too salty to support fish. The once prosperous fishing industry has been virtually destroyed, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. With this collapse has come unemployment, economic hardship, famine & disease.
From 1960 to 1998, the sea’s surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth-largest lake, with an area of approximately 68,000 km2 and a volume of 1100 km³ – by 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 km2, and eighth-largest lake in the world.
Over the same time period its salinity has increased from from 10 grams to 45 grams per litre. Seawater has a salinity of 35 grams per litre!!!
Due to the shrinking fresh water supply – As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed.
The Aral Sea HAD supported a thriving commercial fishing industry employing roughly 60,000 people in the early 1960s. By 1977, the fish harvest was reduced by 75 percent, and by the early 1980s the commercial fishing industry had been eliminated. The last of the 20 or so species of fish that lived in the Aral Sea died out in the 1980s.
The shrinking Aral Sea has also had a noticeable affect on the region’s climate. The growing season there is now shorter, causing many farmers to switch from cotton to rice, which demands even more diverted water.
The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lake bed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard due to the polluted air quality. The salty dust blew off the lake bed and settled onto fields, ruining the soil as well as the peoples health. ALSO… the loss of the weather moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier – further compounding the dust storms.
ABOVE: Aralsk fishing village ( Kazakhstan).The Aral Sea lies on theborder between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and it was the world’sfourth-largest lake until the Soviets decided that the two rivers thatfed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, would be divertedfor irrigating the desert in order to grow rice, melons, cereal, andspecially thirsty cotton crops. Since large scale irrigation began inthe 1960s, the sea’s surface area has shrunk more than 60 percent,and its volume by almost 80 percent. Former fishing villages asMuynak and Aralsk are now dozens of kilometres away fromthe shoreline.
The war here is against tuberculosis, kidney disease and cancers – plaguing the people of the region. Some are caused by toxins, some by the high levels of salt in the water.
“Almost nothing grows and it’s hard for people — salt concentrates in their joints and they can’t walk for a long time…”, says Aigali Tankimalov who sailed the Aral Sea for 29 years. Now the wreck of the vessel he commanded in the navy sits opposite his front door — and the nearest water is 100 kilometres away.
Yet despite the dramatic evidence of environmental destruction, Uzbekistan’s new leaders continue to grow cotton and scientist fear the damage is irreparable.
Environmental experts agree that the current situation cannot be sustained. Yet, driven by poverty and their dependence upon exports, officials in the region have failed to take any preventive action and the Aral will continue to disappear.