Demise of the Aral Sea

A wild ninth post has appeared!

The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right)

The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right)

Previously considered to be one of the largest lakes in the world, in modern times the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size of 68,000 square kilometers. Just this past August, satellite images from NASA has the eastern basin of the sea has completely dried up, and is now called the Aralkum desert. The shrinkage of the Aral Sea is considered to be one of the worst man made environmental disasters in history.

The two rivers that fed the Aral Sea are the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. In the 1960’s the Soviet  government decided to divert these two rivers in order to irrigate surrounding desert in order to grow food crops and cotton, and the Aral Sea suffered for it. During the 1960s, the Aral Sea’s water level decreased by an average of 20cm per year. During the 1970s, this average bloomed to 50 to 60 cm a year. By the 1980s, the water level of the Aral Sea was dropping by 80 to 90cm per year. The canals that they had built to divert the water were massively inefficient, leading to much wasted water.

Aral Sea and its two rivers

Aral Sea and its two rivers

The officials in the Soviet government knew of the eventual disappearance of the Aral Sea due to their project, but deemed it was no concern of theirs. By 1998, the sea lost 60% of its surface area and 80% of its volume. Its salinity, or salt content, increased from 10 grams per liter to 45 grams per liter. By now the Aral Sea had split into two seas, the North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea. Not only that, but the sheer amount of pesticides and fertilizers utilized in the crops were seeping into the sea as runoff, damaging the sea even more with pollution and creating health problems. On the other hand, cotton production in this area doubled. Woo.

By 2014 the sea was only 25% of its original size and 10% in 2007. The high salt content has killed off nearly all of the sea’s plant and sea life. The salt content of the South Aral sea reached over 100 grams of salt per liter. Though the North Aral Sea has been saved via the construction of a dam, the South Aral Sea has turned into the Aralkum desert.

The Aral Sea loses Its Eastern Lobe in August 2014

The Aral Sea loses Its Eastern Lobe in August 2014

The people living near the sea today suffer from severe health problems, including cancer, lung disorder, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and anaemia. The area suffers from a high child mortality rate, 75 in every 1,000 newborns. The dust storms and salt kill off any and all crops in the region. So much for that cotton. The Aral fishing industry, once employing 40,000 people, is now nonexistent. There are many abandoned ships in the seabed-turned-desert.

Abandoned Ships in Aral

Abandoned Ships in Aral

However, people can learn from their mistakes, some of them anyway. In the 1970s the Soviets attempted to divert rivers in the Siberia to irrigate lands in Central Asia. The project was abandoned after heavy opposition from the Russian population and party members, aware of the abundance of problems in the Aral Sea. A short-term solution became a long-term crisis.

Sources:

http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1985aral&Year=1985

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_Sea

http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm

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One Response to Demise of the Aral Sea

  1. Alex Apollonio says:

    I’ve done a lot of reading on the Aral Sea in the past, and it really is beyond tragic what’s happened. The Kazakh government has built dams as a way to keep a tiny bit of water in the north and bring the sea closer to some of these towns than it’s been in years, but the Uzbeks don’t have the money or the will to do anything of that sort. Here’s to hoping that one day the Amu Darya and Syr Darya are allowed to be directed back to how they’re meant to be.

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