The disappearance of Earth’s fourth-largest lake

Drying lakes are an ever-increasing problem thanks to climate change, but nothing can compare to the fate of the Aral Sea. How could a lake as big as Bavaria shrink to a tenth of its size in just a few decades?

The Aral Sea was located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. With an area of 68,000km2, it was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. Its name means “Sea of Islands”, as over a thousand islands were once scattered across its surface. The Aral Sea supported an array of wildlife, including over 300 bird species, 250 aquatic invertebrates, several native fish species and huge herds of the critically-endangered saiga antelope. The lake also held significant cultural and economic importance for the local people, whose livelihoods depended on fishing.

That was a long time ago. Now, the areas once covered by the lake’s expansive waters are a desert. If it weren’t for the husks of fishing vessels that dot the dry landscape, you wouldn’t believe that the barren wasteland was once underwater. So what killed the Aral Sea?

“Sea of Islands” sacrificed for white gold

It all started in the 1950s at the lake’s fishing industry’s peak. It employed around 40,000 people and was an important freshwater fish source. However, the Soviet Union, which had gained control of Central Asia, wanted to make the area a major exporter of cotton. As cotton requires an enormous amount of water to grow, they diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the desert landscape. It worked: Uzbekistan is now the world’s 8th largest cotton producer; the crop makes up almost a fifth of the country’s exports, earning it the nickname “white gold”. But it came at a heavy price.

These rivers were the sources of the Aral Sea, and with 90% of their water diverted to the land, the lake began to shrink rapidly. 60,000km2 of water dried up in just a few decades. Formerly bustling ports ended up miles away from the lake. Salt flats expanded across the landscape and ended up in the disappearing lake. The increased salinity levels, combined with agricultural runoff, effectively eliminated fish stocks. And within a few decades, the fishing industry shrivelled up along with the lake. Today, the Aral basin holds two small, salty lakes; mere fragments of the once great Aral sea.

Aral Sea in 1989 and 2014

The Soviets knew the Aral Sea would disappear following irrigation, but did not predict some of the other effects. The ecosystem collapse has had serious consequences for local people. Those that didn’t emigrate faced breathing problems and cancer thanks to pesticides in drinking water and dust storms. Children are particularly vulnerable, and infant mortality stands at 75 per 1,000 births. Those that survive have few prospects in the region. The fishing industry is no longer commercially viable and agriculture is made difficult by the environmental conditions.

Could the Aral Sea return?

The 21st Century has held some good news for the lake. In 2005, the Kokaral dam was built in Kazakhstan with the aim to restore the northern lake in the Aral basin. Since then, water levels have risen, salinity levels have dropped and fishing has partially resumed. Fish and birds have returned so quickly to the restored areas that locals called the Kokaral “the magic dyke”. Kazakhstan plans further projects in the future, including planting shrubs to prevent dust storms.

However, no attempts have been made to recover the southern part of the former Aral Sea, which is almost completely dead. Uzbekistan’s government continues to encourage cotton production and so the Amu Darya continues to feed the country’s dubious cash crop. Oil and gas drilling has also started in the Aral Basin, adding climate change to the list of environmental effects of the lake’s drainage. There are environmentally friendly alternatives to improve the economy though. A recent study (read below) recommends sustainable agriculture for increasing carbon storage in the region, while also improving food security.

It is unlikely that the Aral Sea will ever return to its former size. But it serves as a stark warning of the consequences of drastically altering the natural landscape for human interest. No matter what economic benefits it may bring, the consequences of ecosystem destruction will be felt most by the people living there.

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