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Why did the Aral Sea dry up and disappear?

In less than a century, humanity destroyed the Aral Sea. What happened?

PortandTerminal.com, August 9, 2019

The Aral Sea was actually never a sea at all. It was an immense lake, a body of freshwater with an area of 68,000 km2. To put that into context, that’s only 17% smaller than Lake Superior, the second largest body of fresh water in the world.

At one time the Aral Sea used to be the fourth-largest lake in the world. Today however it’s a dust bowl, home to abandoned fishing vessels, boats and decimated and sick communities. Only the camels seem to be thriving there now.

What happened?

Once thriving, the vast Aral Sea was drained for irrigation by the Soviets.

“The Soviet engineers didn’t think about the consequences. They knew the lake would dry up someday, but they didn’t care”

The Aral Sea was once fed by two of Central Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. But in the 1960s, Soviet engineers decided to irrigate parts of the surrounding territory and so they constructed a vast system of canals and irrigation channels to reroute the water that was feeding the lake. It was a terrible idea, ill-conceived and badly executed.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union’s hunger for cotton—sometimes called “white gold”—inspired the building of 18,000 miles of irrigation canals along both the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that diverted replenishment of the Aral Sea, which began to evaporate. 

The Soviet irrigation system was leaky and inefficient, and the rivers feeding the Aral Sea slowly drained to a trickle. In the decades that followed, the Aral Sea was reduced to a handful of small lakes, with a combined volume that was just one-tenth the original lake’s size. The little that remained had much higher salinity, due to all of the evaporation.

Camels have replaced the fish in the Aral Sea

“The people destroyed the sea and then nature took revenge on the people,” 

As the lake’s salinity increased the remaining fish were all but killed off completely.

Impact

The Aral Sea was once ringed with prosperous towns and supported a thriving fishery industry, providing 40,000 jobs and supplying the Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish catch. By the 1980s though, the fishing industry —once an important source of employment for the region—was wiped out, forcing a mass migration of people.

The Aral Sea once supplied a sixth of the Soviet Union’s supply of fish

As a result of the drying of the lake over the past decades, millions of fish have died, coastlines have receded miles from towns, and those few people who have remained have been plagued by dust storms that contained the toxic residue of industrial agriculture and weapons testing in the area. Illness and disease have accompanied the dust storms.

Today the Aral Sea, which once had a depth of over 70 feet is a dust bowl. The fish and drinking water are gone, replaced by high local unemployment, infant mortality and poverty. But things may be improving, if only slightly.

Efforts to revive what’s left of the Aral Sea

Fishermen from around the town of Aral in Kazakhstan haul in a catch from the North Aral Sea, where the water level has risen and salinity has decreased—in stark contrast to the larger South Aral Sea, which has gone nearly dry. 

Thanks to large-scale restoration efforts, the North Aral Sea has seen a resurgence of fish—a boon to the communities that rely on it. The South Aral Sea remains a dust bed though and stands as a warning to governments of the impact of massive water diversion projects on people, the environment and the local economy.

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