Evaporating: Can Aral Sea Be Saved?

KANTUBEK, Uzbekistan—World history is replete with rising powers and fallen empires. Eras of domination, greatness and depth are regularly met with fall, disgrace and retreat. The mighty often, nay, always fall – and not just kingdoms, but geographic locales, as well. The Aral Sea would certainly qualify as a fallen empire, shrunken, in size, from its heyday no different than the now readjusted borders of the British, Ottoman, Roman or other similar hegemonies.

            Lakes are rarely mentioned when discussing large waterways, but the Aral Sea was once considered the world’s fourth largest lake. A view of today’s Aral Sea clearly shows the waterway – a sea referred to as a lake – is nowhere near the dominant size as it once was designated as by those who pay attention to these things.

            Questions persist of whether the drying up of the Aral Sea was the result of natural circumstances or human borne events. Uzbekistan, which shares the lake with neighboring Kazkahstan, is in the midst of a drought. Then again the Aral Sea was subject to a serious diversion of waters during the 1960s, when the lake was controlled by the then-Soviet Union. Water from the Aral Sea was, via rivers, to hydrate newly created cotton fields. The cotton fields did well – so well the Aral Sea’s shoreline began to retreat.

            The next few decades saw the Aral Sea shrink in the same way as the British Empire right before it – a waterway once providing a lifeline to locals is now a shell of its former self. The Aral Sea, once a major supply of food (fish) and water in a rural stretch of Central Asia, has, according to various news reports and international organizations, lost 90 percent of its water.

            But there is hope, as help appears to be on the way. A group of college students started planting fruit trees within the Aral Sea’s footprint, according to news reports. The students, who attend Karakalpak State University in Uzbekistan, were planting apple, apricot, cherry, grape and plum trees at the Aral Sea, all as part of an initiative to revive the lake’s landscape. Uzbekistan’s government is backing the initiative, according to news reports.

            The European Union is providing funding to help combat the environmental fallout of the Aral Sea’s demise, as well.

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What Happened?

            A National Geographic story on the Aral Sea stated the waterway was once larger than the state of West Virginia. Today’s Aral Sea footprint, however, could easily fit within the borders of West Virginia. How – and why – did the Aral Sea shrink to one-tenth of its size within 60 years? A 2014 study published by Grand Valley State University in Michigan offered a few perspectives.

            “The climate of the Aral Sea Basin has been experiencing natural fluctuations for many thousands of years,” the study’s authors stated. Aral Sea’s basin includes much of Central Asia (specifically Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).

            “The global climate change of the past century associated with enhancement of the greenhouse effect, has contributed to much faster changes in meteorological and hydrological regimes, causing shifts in the major circulation systems, temperature and precipitation regimes and accelerating melting of the mountain glaciers in Central Asia,” the study’s authors continued.

            Major changes to land use within the Aral Sea Basin also contributed to the waterway’s shrinkage, according to the 2014 Grand Valley State University study. Researchers specifically pointed out the “rapid and massive expansion of irrigation, water diversion and conversion of desert rangelands into irrigated croplands” during the Soviet regime of the 1950s was a major contributor to the Aral Sea’s demise.

            The lack of investments into agriculture and livestock during the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991 also contributed to the Aral Sea’s decline, the study continued.

            NASA also pointed out the Soviet Union’s management of the Aral Sea as a major cause of the lake’s demise.

            “In the 1960s, the Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The region’s two major rivers, fed by snowmelt and precipitation in faraway mountains, were used to transform the desert into farms for cotton and other crops,” NASA staff stated in a published report about the Aral Sea. “Before the project, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers flowed down from the mountains, cut northwest through the Kyzylkum Desert, and finally pooled together in the lowest part of the basin. The lake they made, the Aral Sea, was once the fourth largest in the world.”

            The Aral Sea is now a fraction of its former self, NASA officials acknowledged – and there’s more to the fallout than the need to update maps or satellite images.

            “As the Aral Sea has dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed,” NASA staff stated. “The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.”

Public Health – and an Uncertain Future

            Many a story has been written about the Aral Sea’s current condition. These stories often include photos of abandoned, rusty ships sitting on desert land. The sandy floor beneath the each boat’s hull stretches on for miles into the horizon, a dry stretch of land once the floor of the Aral Sea.

            And it’s not just the abandoned vessels – locals are developing various diseases, be it birth defects, cancers, respiratory issues and other disorders, at a faster clip than the world average, according to National Geographic.

            It’s unclear whether the Aral Sea would be restored to its former greatness. But planting fruit trees could be a start in the right direction, perhaps.