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.