It was shocking when researchers earlier this year revealed a river that originated from one of the largest glaciers in Canada abruptly disappeared over four days in 2016. The vanishing of the Slims river, however, was the result of global warming as the intense melting of the glacier led the river to redirect its waters to the Gulf of Alaska.
But, the Aral Sea, similar to the river in Canada, was known as “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” because of human interventions more than geographical and climate changes. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, which has been called a sea due to its size, it has now shrunk by more than 90 per cent of its size 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 referred to the existence of more than 1500 islands as 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 water through the South, while the second reaches through the North. If the map of a Greek Scholar Claudius is anything to go by, then the Caspian and the Aral Sea were joined and formed a vast inland sea earlier.
However, according to Geographer Dr Nick Middleton, the Amu Darya did not flow to create 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.
The Aral Sea area is characterised by a desert-continental climate, hot summers, cold winters and scanty rainfall, only 100 mm annually.
Beginning of the catastrophe
According to historical documents, the Aral sea region was inhabited by desert nomads and used to support a booming fishing industry in the region.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 1930s that the Aral Sea Disaster started taking shape. With the increased agricultural land to further enhance the flourishing cotton industry, water consumption also increased dramatically. Following the Soviet government’s plan to irrigate the desert by undertaking a diversion project 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 channels also led to the wastage of water at a severe level. The wastage of water from the largest canal in Central Asia, the Qaraqum Canal, was reportedly from 30 to 70 per cent.
In the 1960s, the water level in the Aral sea was drastically going down as up to 60 cubic kilometres of water was going to the farmlands instead of the sea. The amount of redirected water increased heavily as cotton production in the farmlands doubled between 1960 and 2000. As a result, the shrinking of the sea occurred at a maximum pace, at an average of 20cm in a year between 1961 to 1970, 50-60cm in the 1970s and 80–90cm in the 1980s. The latest data reveals that the water level in the Aral sea drops by an average of 31-35 inches yearly.
In line with the reduction of water level, the sea’s surface area also shrank by about 60% between 1960 to 1998. While the Aral sea had an area of around 68,000km2 in 1960, the area recorded 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 the Lesser Sea), and the South Aral Sea became the larger part of the lake( the Greater Sea).
Damaged Ecosystem and Human Health Hazard
Despite geographical changes, this disaster also impacted 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 been destroyed. The use of pesticides also increased at an alarming rate. With the gradual increase of industrialization and the high water level dropping, the Relic sea became too salty even for aquatic animals to survive.
Marine life suffered greatly, and gradually the fishing industry went through an all-time low, 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 saltiness 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 using 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. The region has also reported a high rate of respiratory illnesses, digestive disorders, and infectious diseases.
Health hazards emerged as water levels dropped and portions of the seabed became visible to the naked eye. The Karakalpaks, a community, living in the southern region, suffered a lot. The wind blew across the seabed, producing dust storms that engulfed the area. Toxic dust particles contaminated with salts, fertilisers and pesticides were everywhere. Many people in the region experienced serious health problems, respiratory infections, breathing problems, throat cancers, kidney diseases, and even anemia. The infant mortality rate in the region is still one of the highest in the world.
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 Kazakh Government failed, and it was only in 2005 that it tasted success with the increase in 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 to revive the sea.
The program aimed to stabilise the environment and rehabilitate the disaster area around the Aral sea. Phase one of the program was launched in 1992 with the help of the World Bank and ran until 1997. The second phase started in 1998 and ran for the 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, the reappearance of fish, and the expansion of fishing production. As these restoration efforts started drawing international attention, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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 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 collective responsibility.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why did the Aral Sea dry up?
The Aral Sea dried up as the waters of its source rivers were diverted for irrigation. The waters of two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, were used for cotton cultivation, decreasing the sea’s water level over the years.
2. Will the Aral Sea come back?
It is not possible, given the circumstances and erosion of the seabed. According to Scientists, if present trends continue, the Aral Sea will completely disappear in 20 years. The exposed seabed covers 33,000 square kilometres and is like a vast sandy desert being eroded daily.
3. When did the Aral Sea start shrinking?
Aral Sea’s eastern basin began shrinking in the 1960s. In 2000, Asia’s the Aral Sea had already shrunk to a fraction of its 1960 extent. Extensive irrigation and dry weather caused her eastern lobe to completely dry in 2014, for the time in 600 years.
4. When was the Aral Sea formed?
The depression of the Aral Sea was formed towards the end of the Neogene period, about 23 to 2.6 million years ago. During that time, this depression was gradually filled with water, most of which came from the Syr Darya.
5. What was the original size of the Aral Sea?
The Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world and covered around 68,000 square kilometres. It is the worst environmental disaster prompted by human interference, which destroyed the region’s ecosystem, economy and livelihood of thousands of people.
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