- The Aral Sea in Central Asia was the fourth-largest lake on the planet in 1960. By 2007 it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size. Widespread, wasteful irrigation of the deserts along the Amu and Syr rivers, which feed the Aral, cut the freshwater inflow to a trickle.
- The sea has shriveled into three major residual lakes, two of which are so salty that fish have disappeared. The once thriving fishing fleets have disappeared, too. Former shore towns have collapsed. Vast seabeds lie exposed and dried; winds now blow salts and toxic substances across populated areas, causing significant health problems.
- Nevertheless, a dam built in 2005 has helped the northernmost lake expand quickly and drop substantially in salinity. Fish populations and wetlands are returning—and with them signs of economic revival. The two big southern lakes could become dead seas, however, unless the Amu river, which once fed them, is substantially reengineered, a project requiring tens of billions of dollars and difficult political agreements.
- Other lakes worldwide are beginning to suffer similar fates, chief among them Lake Chad in Central Africa and the Salton Sea in Southern California. Lessons learned about the Aral’s demise and partial resurrection could benefit these regions.
The Aral Sea gets almost all its water from the Amu and Syr rivers. Over millennia the Amu’s course has drifted away from the sea, causing it to shrink. But the lake always rebounded as the Amu shifted back again. Today heavy irrigation for crops such as cotton and rice siphons off much of the two rivers, severely cutting flow into their deltas and thus into the sea. Evaporation vastly outpaces any rainfall, snowmelt or groundwater supply, reducing water volume and raising salinity.
The Soviet Union hid the sea’s demise for decades until 1985, when leader Mikhail Gorbachev revealed the great environmental and human tragedy. By the late 1980s the sea’s level had dropped so much that the water had separated into two distinct bodies: the Small Aral (north) and the Large Aral (south). By 2007 the south had split into a deep western basin, a shallow eastern basin and a small, isolated gulf. The Large Aral’s volume had dropped from 708 to only 75 cubic kilometers (km3), and salinity had risen from 14 to more than 100 grams per liter (g/l). The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union divided the lake between newly formed Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, ending a grand Soviet plan to channel in water from distant Siberian rivers and establishing competition for the dwindling resource.
This article was originally published with the title Reclaiming the Aral Sea.