From as early as 1939, canals began to be constructed redirecting rivers that feed the Aral Sea to the cotton field plains of Uzbekistan, which at the time was under Soviet Rule. The construction of the original Great Fergana Canal was a part of Stalin’s Second Five Year Plan, which would increase the grain export industry in the region exponentially. Eventually a second canal was constructed in the early 1960’s, known as the Karakum Canal, which relocated water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, which were two of the biggest feeder rivers to the Aral Sea, to the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Although the construction proved successful at first with huge profits from the now exponentially growing grain industry, several unintended consequences began to result in the region.
Once the 1950’s came about, scientists were able to notice the beginning stages of desertification in the Aral Sea region, by shortening coast lines. These shortening coast lines began to destroy the once thriving industry, which at one point, contributed a sixth of the Soviet fish stock piles and was the source of somewhere between 30,000-40,000 jobs in the area. Once the 1980’s arrived, the industry was completely diminished, with dead shipping villages and towns, and scattered shipping vessels sitting on dried up land.
Although, in the initial canal construction, Soviet scientists stated that the Sea was bound to dry up at some point in time regardless due to its geographic location and changing environment, they did not expect the health and economic consequences that would come along with it. These dried up sea grounds left the now dust like excess runoff of fertilizers, dried up sea salts, and other man made waste laying around in the area. Dust storms began to sweep these dusts and chemicals off the the dried up sea floor, and blow them into town and villages in the region. The inhalation of these chemicals began to lead to a huge increase in the number of cancers, kidney diseases, liver diseases, new born deaths, and maternity deaths just to name a handful. Besides the chemicals, the blowing of salts and their pile up in cotton and other agricultural fields killed off significant numbers of crops, sharply decreasing the Soviet and Uzbekistan economy.
In response, scientists devised a plan to redirect the canals in a way where water still reached the fields, but also began refilling the Aral Sea as well. Although, the construction of these canals proved to be unpopular to those officials over seeing it in main land Russia, and the inefficiency of these poorly built canals and the need to build new ones proved more expensive then necessary.
In recent years, attempts to redirect groundwater flows into the Aral Sea have been made, and annual progress has been noted, but the figures from the groundwater move are quite small, and at this rate, the process of restoring the Aral Sea to per-canal standards will takes decades, and may never reach its original state.
I find it mind blowing that such drastic measures can be taken without grasping the full extent of the short term and long term effects to come along with it. The scientists saying that the sea was bound to dry up in time sounds like an excuse to go through with the construction to accomplish that era’s “five” year plan that would later turn into a “two-hundred” year fix. This, again, just goes to show the Soviet Union’s obsession with quick industrial growth, despite the result of long term economic, environmental, and human destruction on a massive scale.