The Aral Sea is a large, shallow, saline lake hidden in the remote deserts of the republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the south-central region of the former Soviet Union. Once the world's fourth largest lake in area (smaller only than America's Lake Superior, Siberia's Lake Baikal , and East Africa's Lake Victoria), in 1960 the Aral Sea had a surface area of 26,250 mi2 (68,000 km2), and a volume of 260 cu mi (1,090 cu km). Its only water sources are two large rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Flowing northward from the Pamir Mountains on the Afghan border, these rivers pick up salts as they cross the Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts. Evaporation from the landlocked sea's surface (it has no outlet) makes the water even saltier.
The Aral Sea's destruction began in 1918 when plans were made to draw off water to grow cotton, a badly needed cash crop for the newly formed Soviet Union. The amount of irrigated cropland in the region was expanded greatly (from 7.2–18.8 million acres; 2.9–7.6 million ha) in the 1950s and 1960s with the completion of the Kara Kum canal. Annual water flows in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya dropped from about 13 cu mi (55 cu km) to less than 1 cu mi (5 cu km). In some years the rivers were completely dry when they reached the lake.
Soviet authorities were warned that the sea would die without replenishment, but sacrificing a remote desert lake for the sake of economic development seemed an acceptable tradeoff. Inefficient irrigation practices drained away the lifeblood of the lake. Dry years in the early 1970s and mid-1980s accelerated water shortages in the region. Now, in a disaster of unprecedented magnitude and rapidity, the Aral Sea is disappearing as we watch.
Until 1960 the Aral Sea was fairly stable, but by 1990, it had lost 40% of its surface area and two-thirds of its volume. Surface levels dropped 42 ft; 914 m), turning 11,580 mi2 (30,000 km2, about the size of the state of Maryland) of former seabed into a salty, dusty desert. Fishing villages that were once at the sea's edge are now 25 mi (40 km) from water. Boats trapped by falling water levels lie abandoned in the sand. Salinity of the remaining water has tripled and almost no aquatic life remains. Commercial fishing that brought in 48,000 metric tons in 1957 was completely gone in 1990.
Winds whipping across the dried-up seabed pick up salty dust, poisoning crops and causing innumerable health problems for residents. An estimated 43 million metric tons of salt are blown onto nearby fields and cities each year. Eye irritations, intestinal diseases, skin infections, asthma , bronchitis , and a variety of other health problems have risen sharply in the past 20 years, especially among children. Infant mortality in the Kara-Kalpak Autonomous Region adjacent to the Aral Sea is 60 per 1,000, twice as high as in other former Soviet Republics.
Among adults, throat cancers have increased five fold in 30 years. Many physicians believe that heavy doses of pesticides used on the cotton fields and transported by runoff water to the lake sediments are now becoming airborne in dust storms. Although officially banned, DDT and other persistent pesticides have been widely used in the area and are now found in mothers' milk. More than 35 million people are threatened by this disaster.
A report by the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences predicts that without immediate action, the Aral Sea will vanish by 2010. It is astonishing that such a large body of water could dry up in such a short time. Philip P. Micklin of Western Michigan University, an authority on water issues says this may the world's largest ecological disaster.
What can be done to avert this calamity? Clearly, one solution would be to stop withdrawing water for irrigation, but that would compound the disastrous economic and political conditions in the former Soviet Republics. More efficient irrigation might save as much as half the water now lost without reducing crop yields, but lack of funds and organization in the newly autonomous nations makes new programs and improvements almost impossible. Restoring the river flows to about 5 cu mi (20 cu km) per year would probably stabilize the sea at present levels. It would take perhaps twice as much to return it to 1960 conditions.
Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was talk of grandiose plans to divert part of the northward-flowing Ob and Irtysh rivers in Western Siberia. In the early 1980s a system of dams , pumping stations, and a 1,500 mi (2,500 km) canal was proposed to move 25 cu km (6 cu mi) of water from Siberia to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The cost of 100 billion rubles ($150 billion) and the potential adverse environmental effects led President Mikhail Gorbachev to cancel this scheme in 1986.
Perhaps more than technological fixes, what we all need most is a little foresight and humility in dealing with nature . The words painted on the rusting hull of an abandoned fishing boat lying in the desert might express it best, "Forgive us Aral. Please come back."
[William P. Cunningham ]
Ellis, M. S. "A Soviet Sea Lies Dying." National Geographic 177 (February 1990): 73–93.
Micklin. P. P. "Dessication of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union." Science 241 (2 September 1988): 1170–1176.
Aral Sea (ăr´əl), salt lake, SW Kazakhstan and NW Uzbekistan, E of the Caspian Sea in an area of interior drainage. To the north and west are the edges of the arid Ustyurt Plateau; the Kyzyl Kum desert stretches to the southeast. As recently as the 1970s it was the world's fourth largest lake, c.26,000 sq mi (67,300 sq km) in area and c.260 mi (420 km) long and c.175 mi (280 km) wide. Fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, it was generally very shallow, attaining a maximum depth of c.180 ft (58 m). In the 1950s the Soviet Union decided to cultivate cotton in the region, and since the early 1960s the Syr Darya and Amu Darya have been used for large-scale irrigation, causing a drop in the flow of freshwater into the sea. The sea is, as a result, now greatly reduced. Since 2009 the only areas of the lake permanently filled with water have been in extreme NW and N portions of its former lakebed, about a tenth or less of its former size in area.
The sea formerly supported local fishing and was navigable from Muinak to Aral. As the Aral has retreated from its former shores, due to the combined effects of evaporation and water diversion, major environmental problems have resulted. The quality of the remaining water has deteriorated, increased salinity has killed fish, and the health of those living along the shore has suffered. Regional weather has been affected as well, becoming harsher as the sea's moderating climatic influence has diminished. Vozrozhdeniye, the site of a Soviet germ warfare waste dump, is a former island that is no longer isolated from the surrounding region; in 2001 the United States agreed to help clean up the site.
Geologically separate from the Caspian Sea since the last Ice Age, the Aral Sea was once only slightly saline. Mentioned in Arab writings of the 10th cent., it was called the Khwarazm (or Khorezm) Sea by later Arab geographers. It was reached in the 17th cent. by Russians, who called it the Sinyeye More (Blue Sea). The United Nations has estimated that what remains of the sea will essentially disappear by 2020 if nothing is done to reverse its decline. The Kok-Aral Dam (completed 2005) was constructed to enclose the small northern section (in Kazakhstan), which has revived, but it is a fraction of the former sea.