Why Is the Aral Sea Shrinking?

Why Is the Aral Sea Shrinking?

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The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world and it produced thousands of tons of fish for the local economy annually. Since the 1960s, however, the Aral Sea has been sinking.

Soviet Canals

In the 1920s, the Soviet Union turned lands of the Uzbek SSR into cotton plantations 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, which were the rivers that fed the freshwater Aral Sea.

Until the 1960s, the system of canals, rivers, and the Aral Sea were fairly stable. However, in the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided to expand the canal system and drain more water from the rivers that fed the Aral Sea.

The Destruction of the Aral Sea

Thus, in the 1960s, the Aral Sea began shrinking quite rapidly. By 1987, the single sea dried up enough to create a northern lake and a southern lake. In 2002, the southern lake shrunk and dried up to become an eastern lake and a western lake. In 2014, the eastern lake completely evaporated and disappeared.

The Soviet Union regarded the cotton crops as far more valuable than the Aral Sea fishing economy, which had once been the backbone of the regional economy. Today, you can visit former coastal towns and villages and see long-abandoned piers, harbors, and boats.

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 but things are now headed in a positive direction.

Restoring the Northern Aral Sea

In 1991, the Soviet Union was disbanded and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan became home to the vanishing Aral Sea. Since then, Kazakhstan has been working to resuscitate the Aral Sea.

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. This dam has caused the northern lake to grow by 20% since 2005.

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

The Western Sea Seems to Have a Poor Future

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.

Soviet leaders felt the Aral Sea was unneeded since the water that flowed in basically evaporated with nowhere to go. Scientists believe the Aral Sea was formed about 5.5 million years ago when geologic uplift prevented the two rivers from flowing to their final destinations.

Nonetheless, cotton continues to be grown in the now-independent country of Uzbekistan, where the country comes to a standstill and nearly every citizen is forced to "volunteer" each year during cotton harvest season.

Environmental Catastrophe

The huge, dried-up lakebed is 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.

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.

Today, what was once the fourth largest lake on the planet is now just a dustbowl.