From the Aral Sea to the Aralkum: The Aral Sea catastrophe

Aral SeaDuring its best days, the state fish factory in the harbour town Muynak at the Uzbek southern shore of the Aral Sea delivered 22 million cans of fish each year to the rest of the Soviet Union. Today, the view from the pier is of desert, rusting ships and camels. The Aral Sea has developed into the «Aralkum», the Aral desert. Once the fourth-largest body of water in the world, it has shrunk more than 80% from 68 800 km² to 13 500 km² since 1960, while volume has decreased by 90%. It has split up into three lakes: a northern part, fed by the Syr Darya, a deep, moon crescent-shaped southwestern part and a shallow southeastern part that sometimes entirely disappears. The southern parts were once fed by the Amu Darya, but no significant amounts of water from it have reached the sea for years. The water in salinity level exceeded 75g per litre in the southwestern part of the Southern Aral and 150 g/l in the southeastern part, which is more than five times as much as in the Dead Sea.[Cawater-info.net; Aladin 2005.] Only tiny brine shrimp survive in it.

The consequences of the desiccation have been catastrophic: plants, animals and fish have disappeared. The unique ecosystem of a large lake in the middle of a desert was destroyed. Respiratory diseases, typhus, hepatitis and anaemia spread and the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. The fish industry, which once produced 50 000 tonnes a year, collapsed, and 60 000 people who depended on it lost their jobs. The frequency of dust storms increased, blowing salt and polluted seabed particles hundreds of kilometres away. An important element in mitigating the continental climate in Central Asia disappeared, worsening the climate in the whole region: winters became colder, summers hotter.

Which factors led to this disaster? The main reasons were the expansion of irrigation agriculture to increase cotton production in order to establish the Soviet Union on the world market and to develop a region with a fast-growing population. Between the first Russian census in 1897 and the last Soviet census in 1989, the population almost quintupled from 10.5 million to 49.5 million, due both to high birth rates and migration and deportations from other parts of the Soviet Union. The government therefore faced the urgent task of providing food and work for its growing population and developing this poorest part of the USSR. From 1950 to 1989, the area of irrigated land plots in the Aral Sea Basin almost doubled from 4.2 million ha to 7.4 million ha, alongside the tremendous extension of irrigation and drainage 21-01canals, reservoirs, and other hydraulic infrastructure. Environmental water needs were neglected. The water of the two rivers feeding the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, was used to such an extent for agriculture that only a few cubic kilometres reached it.

In order to secure the existence of the Northern Aral Sea, Kazakhstan constructed, with a loan and expertise from the World Bank, the 13-km Kok-Aral dike, which was completed in 2005 and prevented the water of the Syr Darya from flowing into the Southern Aral, where it simply evaporated. In addition, old infrastructure on the Syr Darya was rehabilitated, irrigation systems were improved and several new hydraulic structures were constructed to reduce water losses and increase the flow of the Syr Darya. The positive effects were soon visible. The surface of the Northern Aral Sea grew by 18% and the water rose by 2 meters. Most importantly, the salinity of the water, which had driven the fish into the Syr Darya delta, fell from over 26 grams per litre, unacceptable to the two dozen species of freshwater fish native to the Aral, to below 10, which was the average before 1960. Not only have the fish returned, but the biomass, or weight of all the fish in the northern sea, was estimated in 2011 to have risen from 3 500 tonnes, most of it a flounder introduced from the Black Sea, to 18 000 tonnes, most of it native, edible species like carp, pike perch, catfish and pike. Commercial fishing now accounts for 4 500 tonnes and a fish-processing plant has started operating in Aralsk, exporting the most valuable fish to Russia and other neighbouring countries.

In the southern part, the Uzbek government took measures to sustain the wetlands in the delta area of the Amu Darya. Nevertheless, the desiccation continues. Today, there is no hope that the entire Aral Sea can be resuscitated: the water flow it would require would cause catastrophic social disruptions along the two rivers. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Muynak at the former southern shore in April 2010, he called the depletion of the Aral Sea «one of the worst environmental disasters of the world», and «a vivid testament to what (...) happens when we waste our common natural resources, when we neglect our environment, when we mismanage our environment.»[Giese 1998, Micklin 2006, Sehring 2007.]