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 the size of Bavaria shrink to a tenth of its size in just a few decades?

The Aral Sea was a brackish lake located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. With an area of 68,000km2, it was once the fourth-largest lake in the world and the second largest in Asia after the Caspian Sea. Its name means “Sea of Islands”, as over a thousand islands were once scattered across its surface. Unsurprisingly for its size, 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 now critically-endangered saiga antelope. The lake held significant cultural and economic importance for local inhabitants, many of whom depended on fishing for their livelihoods.

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 ghostly husks of fishing vessels that mark the dry landscape like gravestones, you wouldn’t believe that barren wasteland was once underwater. So what killed the Aral Sea?

“Sea of Islands” sacrificed for white gold

It all started with the Soviet Union’s control of Central Asia, when the lake’s fishing industry was at its peak. It produced 48,000 tons of fish annually, employed around 40,000 people and was one of the USSR’s most important freshwater fish sources. However, the Soviets had another natural resource on their minds. They wanted to make Central Asia a major exporter of cotton. However, cotton requires an enormous amount of water to grow, so the dry landscape was far from ideal. To solve this, they diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the surrounding desert. It worked: to this day, Uzbekistan is 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 two rivers were the sources of the Aral Sea, and as 90% of their water was diverted to the land, the lake began to shrink at an alarming rate for such an expansive water body. 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 made their way into 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 basin where it once stood holds two small, salty lakes; mere fragments of the once great Aral Sea.

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

The Soviets were well aware that the Aral Sea would disappear following irrigation, but did not predict some of the other consequences. Apart from the loss of wildlife, this ecosystem collapse has had serious consequences for local people. Those that didn’t emigrate were faced with respiratory diseases and cancer thanks to toxic pesticides entering their bodies through drinking water and dust storms. Children are particularly vulnerable, and infant mortality stands at 75 per 1,000 births. Those that do reach adulthood have few prospects in the region, as the fishing industry is no longer commercially viable and agriculture is made difficult by the area’s environmental conditions.

Could the Aral Sea return?

The 21st Century has held some good news for the fate of 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 for further restoration projects in the future, including planting shrubs to prevent dust storms.

However, no attempts have been made to recover the southern half of the former Aral Sea, which is now almost completely dead. The government of Uzbekistan continues to encourage cotton production (and associated child labour) 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 long list of environmental effects caused by the lake’s drainage. There are environmentally friendly alternatives to improve the economy though. A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Management (read below) recommends the use of sustainable agriculture as a way to increase carbon storage in the arid 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 destroying an ecosystem will be felt most by the people living there.

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