To date, the Aral Sea – the fourth largest lake in the world – has completely lost the status of a stable super-complex natural system. Will it ever be reborn?
The Aral Sea is (was?) an endorheic lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan which began shrinking in the 1960s and had largely dried up by the 2010s. The name roughly translates as “Sea of Islands”, referring to over 1,100 islands that once dotted its waters. The Aral natural system used to maintain a very stable ecological balance over vast areas, extinguishing the entropy of the environment and holding back the movement of deserts to the north.
Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s when the Soviets launched irrigation projects and diverted the rivers that fed it. By 1997, it had declined to a mere 10% of its original size, splitting into four lakes: the North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea, and the smaller intermediate Barsakelmes Lake.
“The saddest and most frustrating thing about the tragedy of the Aral Sea is that the Soviet officials at the Ministry of Water who designed the irrigation canals knew full well that they were dooming the Aral,” Yusup Kamalov, senior researcher in wind energy at the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences, told National Geographic.
So basically, the Soviets contended that crops were more valuable than fish. This was a death sentence for the lake.
By 2009, the southeastern lake had disappeared completely, while the southwestern lake had retreated into a thin strip at the western edge of the former southern sea. In subsequent years occasional water flows allowed the southeastern lake to be replenished to a small degree from time to time.
Satellite images by NASA in August 2014 revealed that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the Aral Sea had dried p completely. The eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea is often called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters”. The once-prosperous fishing industry has been virtually destroyed, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. To the people, this brought unemployment and economic hardship.
So what’s the deal? Well, in return, about two million hectares (5,000,000 acres) of farmland in the Ferghana Valley are irrigated with water from the diverted Syr Darya river. Alas, the area is heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health problems. UNESCO has added historical documents concerning the Aral Sea to its Memory of the World Register as a resource to study the environmental tragedy.
Many different solutions to the Aral Sea’s problems have been suggested over the years, such as improving the quality of irrigation canals or cultivating crops other than cotton – one of the most water consuming plants around, which is predominant in the area. Some of the bolder proposals included redirecting water from the Volga, Ob and Irtysh rivers or even pumping sea water into the Aral Sea from the Caspian Sea via a pipeline, and diluting it with fresh water from local catchment areas.
The future of the Aral Sea and the responsibility for its survival are now in the hands of the five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Although in 1994 they adopted the Aral Sea Basin Programme, they have found it difficult to implement the procedures of the plan, mostly due to the lack of co-operation among the affected people.
Nevertheless, with help from the Kazakh government, the World Bank, and scientists, the northern part of the Aral has recently started to make a recovery. In 2005, Kazakhstan completed the Dike Kokaral, and by 2008, the water level had risen 12 m (39 ft) above that of 2003, with the maximum depth reaching 42 m (138 ft). Salinity has dropped, and fish are again present in sufficient numbers – giving local fishermen a reason to celebrate.
“People had written off the Aral Sea,” says University of Michigan geographer Philip Micklin, a National Geographic grantee who has been studying the sea since the 1980s and still visits every few years. “Nature can come back.” But, then, defining recovery in a place so deeply altered by human activity is a complicated proposition.
This is especially so since global warming is also suspected to be behind the Aral Sea’s rapid dying. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see it in its original spleandor. Instead, we have to get used to the name of the new desert appearing in its place – Aralkum.