It was a shocking news when researchers earlier this year revealed a river that originated from one of the largest glaciers in Canada abruptly disappeared over the course of four days in 2016. The vanishing of the Slims river, however, was the result of the global warming as the intense melting of the glacier led the river redirecting its waters to the Gulf of Alaska. But, the fate Aral Sea, similar to that of the river in Canada, known as “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters,” was a result of human interventions more than the geographical and climate changes. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, which has been called a sea due to its size, has now shrunk by more than 90 per cent of its size before over fifty years ago, mainly because of the re-routing of its source rivers.
Location and History of Aral Sea
Located between Kazakhstan in the north and Karakalpakstan, an independent area of Uzbekistan, in the south, lies the Aral Sea. The Sea of Islands that referred to the existence of more than 1500 islands was a wonder in itself. The two rivers that feed the Aral Sea are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, where the first one reaches the body of waters through the South, while the second reached through the North. If the map of a Greek Scholar Claudius is anything to go by, then the Caspian and the Aral Sea were joint and formed a huge inland sea earlier. However, according to Geographer Dr. Nick Middleton, the Amu Darya did not flow to form the Aral Sea until the beginning of the Holocene and it was flowing into the Caspian Sea until then. He also noted that the Syr Darya led to the formation of a large lake called the Mynbulak depression in the Kyzyl Kum during the Pliocene.
Beginning of the catastrophe
The Aral sea region, which was, according to historical documents, inhabited by desert nomads and used to support a booming fishing industry in the region. In the 20th century, the Aral Sea was reported to be the world’s fourth-largest inland water body with an approximate area of 68 000 sq.km. Moreover, the rivers that fed the lake also offered water to nearby towns, giving birth to the historic Silk Route.
However, It was only in the 1930’s that the Aral Sea Disaster started taking shape. With the increase of the agricultural land to further enhance the flourishing cotton industry, the consumption of water also increased dramatically. In accordance with the Soviet government’s plan to irrigate the desert by diverting the rivers to cultivate rice, melons, cereals, and cotton, many irrigational dams and canals were built on the arteries of the Aral Sea. Moreover, the poorly built canals also led to the wastage of water in a serious level. The wastage of water from the largest canal in Central Asia, Qaraqum Canal, was reportedly from 30 to 70 percentage.
In 1960’s, the water level in Aral sea was drastically going down as up to 60 cubic kilometers of water was going to the farm lands instead of the sea. The amount of the water being redirected increased heavily as the production of cotton in the farmlands doubled between 1960 and 2000. As a result, the shrinking of the sea occurred at maximum pace; at an average of 20cm in a year between 1961 to 1970, 50-60cm in 1970’s and it reached 80–90cm in 1980’s. The latest data reveals that water level in the Aral sea drops by an average of 31-35 inches every year.
In line with the reduction of water level, the surface area of the sea also shrank by about 60% between 1960 to 1998. While the Aral sea had an area around 68,000km2 in 1960, the area recorded in the in 1998 was 28,687km2. Its position among the largest lakes also went down from fourth to eighth during this period. In 1987, the continuous shrinkage caused the Aral Sea to be divided into two parts. The North Aral Sea was the smaller part (known as Lesser Sea) and the South Aral Sea became the larger part of the lake( the Greater Sea).
Despite geographical changes, this disaster was also made an impact on the flourishing fishing economy. The fishing industry that once reportedly produced one-sixth of the catch in the Soviet Union and employed around 40,000, has completely destroyed. The use of pesticides also increased at an alarming rate and with the gradual increase of industrialization and the high dropping percentage of water level, the Arlic sea became too salty even for aquatic animals to survive. The marine life suffered to a great extent and gradually the fishing industry went through an all time low that was one of the major consequences of the dying Aral Sea. The abandoned fishing trawlers in the sandy wastelands are the living memories of the catastrophe.
The ecosystem of the Aral Sea was destroyed mainly as a result of the increased salinity as well as the testing of weapons and other fertilizer run offs. The salinity of the water in the Aral sea was around 376 g/l by 1990 compared to the 35 g/l salinity of ordinary seawater. In addition to the use of pesticides, activities like weapon testing have also resulted in the formation of huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals. The land around the Aral Sea is also highly polluted and the people living in the surrounding areas have been suffering from many health related problems along with the lack of fresh drinking water. Reports suggest that there are high rates of certain kinds of cancer and lung diseases in the surrounding area. A high rate of respiratory illnesses, digestive disorders and infectious diseases also have been reported in the region.
Revival of the Aral Sea
It was in 1991 that Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union and decided to improve the situation of the Dying Aral Sea. The first two attempts of the Kazakhstan Government failed and it was only in 2005 that it tasted success with the increase of the water level and the fish stocks in the sea. In 1994, the countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan adopted the Aral Sea Basin Program for the revival of the sea. The program was aimed at stabilizing the environment and also rehabilitating the disaster area around the Aral sea. Phase one of the program was launched in 1992 with the help of World Bank and ran until 1997. The second phase started in 1998 ran for next five years, while the third phase ran simultaneously and focussed on the enhancement of the irrigation systems currently in place.
It was only then that the Aral Sea disaster saw a little improvement with the depth increased to 30 feet after rigorous tries of Kazakhstan. The construction of the Dike Kokaral in 2005, a concrete dam that divides the two halves of the Aral Sea, was an important milestone as it helped the water level of the North Aral to rise and bring down the salinity. The government is now ready to build another dike and the rehabilitation work continues even today. Recent reports from the region have suggested an increase in the water level and also the reappearance of fishes as well as the expansion of fishing production. As these restoration efforts started drawing international attention, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had also asked Central Asian leaders to step up efforts to resolve the problem. Though the North Aral sea has been revived to a large extent the bits and pieces of the South Aral Sea still continue to disappear, forming the Aralkum desert on the lake bed. As experts argue, there is more to do to bring back the sea, such as a serious cross-country method with a collective responsibility.
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