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.