How people killed a Sea. The history of eco-disaster in central Asia.

Sound of water and pleasant feel of the wind on the skin. Lots of boats were coming back from fishing. The fish smell was saturating everything in the harbour. People were busy transporting cargo to local canneries. Some people were sunbathing on the beach. It might look like that in the late 1960s in Aralsk or Muynaq in Central Asia. Before the Sea… disappeared. All that was left was the graveyard of rusting ships and an enormous ecological disaster.

The Aral Sea lies at the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the middle of the deserts Kara-Kum and Kyzyl-Kum. In 1960 this saline sea area was about 68 000 km2; it was the fourth of Earth’s most giant inland water bodies. The economy of the surrounding cities was based on the fish industry. However, Soviet politics had a different plan for this region. They came up with the project of irrigating desert areas to cultivate cotton and crops. The digging of drainage canals started in the 1930s and increased in the 1960s. The water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya- two rivers fed the Aral Sea, was diverted into irrigation canals. The plantations were growing, therefore in the late eighties, Uzbekistan became the largest cotton exporter in the world. Water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had been used to water plantations practically for thousand years. But what could go wrong? As we can see today – a lot. Twenty per cent of Aral’s water supply came from rainfalls. The rest was delivered by the Amu Darya and Sur Darya rivers. Most canals were built so poorly that the water from the rivers indeed watered the cotton. Still, it is estimated that ca. 30-75% of the water from the biggest – Qaraqum Canal went to waste because of leakage and evaporation. All the water wasted in Qaraqum Canal was lost in Aral, sinking into the soil instead of sourcing the Sea. The water level in the Aral Sea has decreased rapidly since that time. And this is how the tragedy began.

Patrick Schneider | Unsplash

Since 1960, the first-decade water level dropped by 21 cm yearly, but in the next desiccation period, it was 57 cm a year. Due to positive feedback between evaporation and the sea surface temperature, the water level started accelerating faster. Due to shrinking, in the late eighties, the Sea receded to form two, then four parts: smaller – North Aral Sea, temporary Barsakelmes Lake and Larger South Aral Sea, which split into western and eastern basins. The salinity of the Sea increased from 10 g/l to more than 100 g/l in Southern Aral, so most of the Sea’s fauna and flora, including endemic species, died out. Water was no longer fit for drinking purposes due to increasing salinity and pollution with pesticides and fertilisers from surrounding farms. In 2014 US space agency’s satellite took pictures showing the dried-up eastern basin of the South Aral Sea, which turned into the Aral-Kum desert, an utterly barren and salty area. Currently, the Aral lake has 10% of its original volume of water and 25% of its original size.

Water leakages damaged the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya deltas and vegetation. The hydrological balance in the region was disturbed. The vegetative cover changed, and the plants began to die away. The side effect of this process was intensified winds. Six million hectares of agricultural land were destroyed due to desertification and salinisation of the soil. The Aral Sea had a significant role in regulating climate in Central Asia. Maritime conditions changed in the direction of continental and desertic climates. Summers have warmed, winters have cooled. Humidity in the region has lowered, and the growing seasons have become shorter than before.

The desiccation process brought loads of ecological, demographic, and socio-economic problems. The fish industry pulled down; former ports after evaporation of the Sea were far from the shore. The high rate of unemployment in the region caused the wave of migration. People lost their hope, the cities and villages started to depopulate.

In the late 1990s, one of more than 1100 Aral’s islands – Resurrection Island (Russian: Остров Возрождения) became a particular environmental concern. During Cold War, it had been a testing ground for Soviet biological weapons: genetically modified pathogens such as smallpox, typhus, or plague. In 2002 American expedition discovered there and neutralised one hundred tons of anthrax bacteria. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Resurrection Island has been united with the mainland. Existed a risk that some bacteria survived and could be transmitted to the human sites via infected wild animals.

But not only the biological weapon was the main health hazard in this area. When the water dropped enough to expose the seabed, winds blowing across it produced sand and salt storms that buffeted the area with toxic dust from pesticides and fertilizers. The tempests were often from 150-300 km wide, and people could find the dirt from the Aral Sea region hundreds of kilometres away from its source. Scientists even found the dust in Antarctica. Knowing that a hundred million tonnes of dust are picked up by winds and carried out, we can imagine that people living near the former Aral Sea basin are the most exposed. Therefore, the number of diseases such as asthma, typhoid fever, leukaemia, throat cancers, kidney and liver diseases or tuberculosis increased through inhabitants of this area.

Thirty years ago, people thought there was no more hope for the Aral Sea. Fortunately, since the beginning of the nineties, Kazakhstan has been trying to stop the sea from drying up. In 1992 they built the first dam separating the North and South Aral Sea. After ten years, the first dam was washed away, making a more modern one – the Dike Kokaral was necessary. It helped to keep the water level in the North Aral Sea. In 2001 started project of the regulation of a riverbed of Syr Darya to preserve the northern part of the Aral Sea. The water in the Little Aral Sea went up, the distance from Aralsk – former harbour city to the shore was reduced from 120 to less than 20 kilometres. With the water, life returned to this area – local enterprises began recovering, fish restored, and people came back to villages.

Drying up the southern part of the sea is inevitable since the Amu Darya has been used more than ever to irrigate cotton. We cannot stop the deserting and evaporating processes in the south. Meanwhile, Muynaq became a dark tourism destination. People want to feel a ‘post-apocalyptic’ climate of empty canneries and rusty skeleton ships, marine signs of former glory as a port. Now the Aral-Kum desert. However, Uzbekistan started a new project to stop the toxic dust from spreading worldwide. They planned to plant Saxaul – a native Uzbekistan drought-resistant tree in the Aral seabed to transform the desert into the forest and cover the toxic land with a green blanket.

Knowing all of that, the first plans of saving the Aral Sea might sound hilarious. Soviets wanted to dig another canal(!) to water the Sea by Siberian rivers such as Ob and Irtysh. Fortunately, the plan backfired; at least they didn’t cause another eco-disaster in Siberia. We can learn a lot from that bitter lesson of one of the most significant anthropogenic disasters. Damaging the environment is extremely easy, but repairing it is an arduous process. History of the Aral Sea is the following example of human mismanagement of natural resources, which harmed people’s lives. It will never restore to its original size, but we can at least support initiatives fighting for preserving what can be saved.

Aleksandra Kanasiuk

YouTube: Green Aral Sea Initiative – Planting a Forest on the Aral Seabed
Articlekz: Aral Sea: the last hope for salvation
Ciesin: Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union Ecological problems of the Aral Sea: legends and solutions World of Change: Shrinking Aral Sea The Aral Sea Crisis The country that brought a sea back to life Aral Sea Reclaiming the Aral Sea The Aral Sea Disaster

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