The fate of the Aral Sea has been described as the greatest manmade ecological catastrophe. Once the world’s fourth largest inland hotly of water, a giant oasis in the middle of the barren Central Asian wilderness, for millennia the Aral Sea sustained life and provided bounteous supplies of fish for the region’s inhabitants. The sea was fringed by busy fishing villages and pristine beaches; people flocked to its healing saline waters and hunted wildlife along the shoreline.
Until the mid-20th century, the Aral was fed by two torrential rivers. The Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) pour down from the towering mountains on China’s border, cutting two great swathes through the steppes of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but when the USSR was at its height, Central Asia was turned over to agro-industry, specifically cotton monoculture. Innumerable canals were built to redirect river water into the endless miles of cotton fields. By 1960 more river water was being diverted than not; the Aral Sea started to shrink and the fertile Amu Darya delta to dry up. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the sea level continued to drop as more and more water was sidetracked to meet the insatiable demands of the cotton industry, without a thought lor the consequences. In 35 years the Aral Sea’s depth dropped by more than 19 m (62ft).
The powers that be saw it happening, but nobody did anything and the imperative of instant profit took precedence over long-term wellbeing. By 2003, the Aral Sea had been reduced to four polluted puddles in a barren salt flat contaminated with pesticide and fertilizer residue. Today, the fishing villages of the Aral Sea are a tragic sight.
Once thriving communities have become ghost towns, and abandoned boats lie half buried in the toxic mud. You might think you were in hell.
When: 1960s onwards
Where: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
Toll: By 2007, the Aral was only a tenth of its original size. As the sea has shrunk, it has retreated by up to 100 km (60 mi) from its original shoreline. As a result the entire regional ecosystem has been upset and the local climate has become far more extreme, seriously affecting the lives of five million people. The fishing industry, which used to supply the Soviet Union with a sixth of its catch, is moribund. Raging dust storms blow poisons through the atmosphere causing endemic respiratory and eye problems. Chemical pollution from a combination of industrial waste and pesticides and fertilizers is not only a permanent health hazard but has also caused genetic damage, infant mortality is higher than anywhere else in the developing world.
You should know: In June 2004, researchers predicted that the Aral would have completely dried up in another 15 years, leaving only a vast toxic salt bowl. Recently the UN has stepped in and given backing to the Kazakh government to restore water to the Aral. This has met with more success than expected, giving a ray of hope; but Uzbekistan, still economically dependent on its cotton industry, has shown little interest in following suit.