Aral Sea

Ship abandoned in a now dry part of the Aral Sea[H. Joseph Ware]

The Aral Sea is a briny terminal lake situated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It shrank drastically between 1960 and 1990 due to water diversion for irrigation in the region. This shrinking has spawned several serious environmental problems in the region and has been called the “quiet Chernobyl” (Kumar, 3797).

The Sydarya and Amudarya rivers feed the Aral Sea, which originally boasted a surface area of 66,000 km2, making it the fourth largest natural lake in the world (ibid.).Today, it has shrunk to 74 percent of its original surface area and 90 percent of its original volume (Micklin 2007, 47). It was a center for fishing and shipping, both of which have been negatively affected by the shrinking (Kumar, 3800). Water instability and climate variation in this arid region has increased (Micklin 1988, 1173). Pesticide runoff from the monocultures mixes with dust generated by the shrinking, posing a significant public health challenge (O’Hara, et al).

In Tsarist Russia, there was intense colonization around the Aral Sea, but this did not disrupt the natural maintenance of the sea (Zinn, 157). This did not immediately change with the installation of Soviet rule, which, although it saw the immediate increase of cotton production in Uzbekistan, was generally concerned with preserving environmental integrity—Lenin himself advocated obligatory crop rotation (ibid., 158-9). By 1931, this policy was discarded, and by 1939, Usman Yusupov, first secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party, wrote of the need to “make [the Amudarya and Sydarya Rivers] serve the cause of socialism” (ibid., 159).  In the 40s and 50s, the Soviets began to construct massive irrigation and water control facilities to increase the land that could be irrigated from the Aral, especially under the “Virgin Lands” initiative of Nikita Khrushchev, including the 1300km Karakum canal which diverted 225 km3 of water between 1956 and 1986 (ibid., 159-162; Micklin 1988, 1171).

The Soviets hoped to create a massive cotton monoculture in the region with this new irrigation regime, although rice was also grown in these newly created irrigation zones (Zinn, 167). The Soviets uprooted orchards and consolidated plots to increase the size of irrigated fields (ibid., 162). Motivations for this monoculture were largely political; not only did the Soviet want to erase dependence on foreign cotton, but it also sought to demonstrate its ability, through hard work, to “develop a glittering southern showcase of socialism” (ibid. 177). Several spoke against the policy, pointing to it as the germ of environmental disaster, but the political goals won the day (ibid., 179-180).

The program met with some initial success, as the region’s cotton yield rose to 5,660,000 metric tons by 1977 (ibid., 167). But the flawed project was implemented in even more flawed ways. Cotton, which is an already a water intensive crop, requiring up to 9000m3/ha, was irrigated at levels well above this already high amount. Irrigation ditches seeped more than expected (ibid., 171). This over irrigation and uncontrolled seepage sped up the process of salination and increase the drawdown of water in the Aral Sea (ibid., 170-172). It also overwhelmed the current water drainage system, diverting runoff into many artificial lakes, some no more than traditionally arid depressions in the middle of deserts (ibid., 173).

The salination began to sabotage the program, rendering large swaths of land less and less fertile, and compromising yields (ibid., 170). Under glasnost, the Soviet regime began to see the Aral situation as a problem. Around this time it attracted the attention of the international community, and the UN and related agencies began to survey the results of the damage (ibid., 174). But the collapse of the Soviet Union compromised the ability of Soviet scientists to remedy the situation, and several schemes to control or repair the damage met with an inability to find funding (Kumar, 3801).

Although Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have all reduced the cultivation of cotton, it still remains an important cash crop to these struggling economies, especially that of Uzbekistan. Other crops may not require as much irrigation, but the increasing populations of these countries require more intense cultivation to produce more food. Irrigation that diverts water from the Aral continues (Micklin 2007, 61).

Aral Sea ShrinkageThe shrinking of the Aral Sea has compromised public health. The salty, exposed bed of the lake is prone to dust storms, which further salination and mix with toxic pesticide runoffs (Kumar, 3799). Rates of cancer and other environmentally related diseases are high (ibid, 3800). In 1988, Uzbekistan’s child mortality exceeded 32 % by some measures, though it has declined since (Alibekov and Alibekova, 425). There are widespread migrations from the area around the Aral Sea (Micklin 1988, 1171). A comprehensive solution to these problems seems distant and administratively impossible, although Kazakhstan, with funding from the World Bank, opened a dam in 2005 that began to refill the North Aral Sea (Greenberg).

Lake shrinkage due to evaporation has a negative feedback effect, thus predicting an ultimate stabilization of the size of the Aral Sea (Micklin 1988, 1171). A 2005 survey funded by the National geographic Society found that fish communities were recovering in some places despite the salinity and that there were populations of aquatic birds establishing themselves on the shores of the Aral (Micklin 2007, 62). It remains to be seen whether these natural processes of equilibrium will enable human settlement return to the area of the Aral Sea.


Works Cited

  • Igor Zinn, “The impact of political ideology on creeping environmental changes in the Aral Sea basin,” chap. 8 inCreeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin, ed. Michael Glantz (West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • Ilan Greenberg, “As a Sea Rises, So Do Hopes for Fish, Jobs and Riches,” The New York Times, April 6, 2006.
  • L. A. Alibekov and S. L. Alibekova, “The Socioeconomic Consequences of Desertification in Central Asia.” Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 77. no. 3 (2007): 420-425.
  • Phillip Micklin, “The Aral Sea Disaster,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 35. (2007): 47-72.
  • Philip Micklin, “Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union.” Science. 241. no. 4870 (1988): 1170-1176.
  • Rama Sampath Kumar, “Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia,” Economic and Political Weekly. 37. no. 37 (2002): 3797-3802.
  • Sarah L. O’Hara, Giles F. S.Wiggs, Batyr Mamedov, George Davidson, Richard B. Hubbard, “Exposure to airborne dust contaminated with pesticide in the Aral Sea region,” Lancet355, no. 9204 (February 19, 2000): 627-628.