Why Is the Aral Sea Shrinking?

Until the 1960s, the Aral Sea Was the 4th Largest Lake in the World

Sunset after Aral Sea

Elmar Akhmetov/Moment/Getty Images

The Aral Sea is located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Scientists believe it was formed about 5.5 million years ago when geologic uplift prevented two rivers—Amu Darya and Syr Darya—from flowing to their final destinations. 

The Aral Sea used to have an area of 26,300 sq miles and produce thousands of tons of fish for the local economy annually. But since the 1960s, it has been catastrophically shrinking.

The Main Cause—Soviet Canals

In the 1940s, the European USSR was going through a widespread drought and famine, and as a result, Stalin launched what is known as the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Its purpose was to improve the overall agriculture of the country.

The Soviet Union turned lands of the Uzbek SSR into cotton plantations—which operated on a system of forced labor—and ordered the construction of irrigation canals to provide water to the crops in the middle of the plateau of the region. 

These hand-dug, irrigation canals moved water from the Anu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the same rivers that fed the freshwater into the Aral Sea. Even though the irrigation wasn't very efficient and a lot of water leaked or evaporated in the process, the system of canals, rivers, and the Aral Sea were fairly stable until the 1960s. 

However, in that same decade, the Soviet Union decided to expand the canal system and drain more water from the two rivers, suddenly draining the Aral Sea considerably.

The Destruction of the Aral Sea

Thus, in the 1960s, the Aral Sea began shrinking quite rapidly, with the lake's level dropping 20-35 inches yearly. By 1987, it dried up so much that instead of one lake, there were now two: the Large Aral (south) and the Small Aral (north). 

While up to 1960, the water level was about 174 ft above sea level, it suddenly dropped to 89 ft in the Large Lake and 141 in the Small Lake. Yet, the world wasn't aware of this tragedy up until 1985; the Soviets kept the facts secret.

In the 1990s, after gaining independence, Uzbekistan changed their way of exploiting the land, but their new cotton policy contributed to the further shrinkage of the Aral Sea.

At the same time, the top and bottom waters of the lake were not mixing well, which caused the salinity levels to be highly uneven, thus allowing the water to evaporate from the lake even faster.

As a result, in 2002, the southern lake shrunk and dried up to become an eastern lake and a western lake, and in 2014, the eastern lake completely evaporated and disappeared, leaving behind the desert called Aralkum, instead. 

End of the Fishing Industry

The Soviet Union was aware of some of the threats their economic decision posed to the Aral Sea and its region, but they regarded the cotton crops as far more valuable than the area's fishing economy. Soviet leaders also felt the Aral Sea was unneeded since the water that flowed in basically evaporated with nowhere to go.

Prior to the evaporation of the lake, the Aral Sea produced about 20,000 to 40,000 tons of fish a year. This was reduced to a low of 1,000 tons of fish a year at the height of the crisis. And today, instead of supplying food to the region, the shores have become ship graveyards, a curiosity for occasional travelers.

If you happen to visit the former coastal towns and villages around the Aral Sea, you'll be able to witness the long-abandoned piers, harbors, and boats.

Restoring the Northern Aral Sea

In 1991, the Soviet Union was disbanded, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan became the new official homes to the vanishing Aral Sea. Since then, Kazakhstan, along with UNESCO and a multitude of other organizations, have been working to resuscitate the Aral Sea.

Kok-Aral Dam

The first innovation that helped save part of the Aral Sea fishing industry was Kazakhstan's construction of the Kok-Aral Dam on the southern shore of the northern lake, thanks to support from the World Bank.

Since the end of its construction in 2005, this dam has helped the northern lake to grow. Before its construction, the sea was 62 miles away from Aralsk, a port city, but it started growing back, and in 2015 the sea was only 7.5 miles away from the port town.

Other Initiatives

The second innovation has been the construction of the Komushbosh Fish Hatchery at the northern lake where they raise and stock the northern Aral Sea with sturgeon, carp, and flounder. The hatchery was built with a grant from Israel. 

Predictions are that thanks to those two major innovations, the northern lake of the Aral Sea could produce 10,000 to 12,000 tons a fish a year.

Low Hopes for the Western Sea

However, with the damming of the northern lake in 2005, the fate of the southern two lakes was nearly sealed and the autonomous northern Uzbek region of Karakalpakstan will continue to suffer as the western lake continues to vanish. 

Nonetheless, cotton still continues to be grown in Uzbekistan. As if following in the old USSR traditions, the country comes near a standstill during the harvest season, and almost every citizen is forced to "volunteer" each year. 

Environmental and Human Catastrophe

Besides the sad fact that the Aral Sea has been disappearing, its huge, dried-up lakebed is also a source of disease-causing dust that blows throughout the region. 

The dried remnants of the lake contain not only salt and minerals but also pesticides like DDT that were once used in huge quantities by the Soviet Union (ironically, to make up for the lack of water).

Additionally, the USSR once had a biological-weapons testing facility on one of the lakes within the Aral Sea. Although now closed, the chemicals used at the facility help to make the destruction of the Aral Sea one of the great environmental catastrophes of human history.

As a result, the entire ecosystem is affected, and it will take years to restore. Few crops grow in this region, furthering the use of pesticides and contributing to the vicious cycle. The fishing industry, as mentioned, has almost completely disappeared, also affecting other animals that used to live in this location.

On a human level, because of the poor economy, people were forced into heavy poverty or they had to move. Toxins are present in the drinking water and have entered the food chain. Coupled with the scarcity of resources, this puts at risk the most vulnerable groups, and women and children of the region tend to suffer from many diseases.

However, in 2000, UNESCO published a "Water-Related Vision for the Aral Sea Basin for the Year 2025." It is considered to be the basis for positive actions that would lead to securing "a bright and sustainable future" for the Aral Sea region. With the other positive developments, there is perhaps hope for this unusual lake and the life dependent on it.

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