Who Drained Russia’s Vast Aral Sea?

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Beached ships in the dry Aral Sea
Beached fishing boats in the dry bed of the Aral Sea

The Soviet Union/USSR, that’s who.  The Aral Sea is actually situated in Central Asia, between Northern Uzbekistan and Southern Kazakhstan.  Once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, the vanishing Aral Sea is nearly empty now, thanks to a decades-old, poorly-engineered Soviet-begun desert irrigation program.

The Aral Sea once had a surface area of over 26,000 square miles (67,300 square km). It was circled with booming Kazak and Uzbek towns living off a thriving fishing industry of carp, flounder and catfish.  It provided over 40,000 jobs and supplied the entire Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish – but no more.

The Aral Sea is fed by two of Central Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, both originating in the snowy Himalayas to the south, before flowing north and crossing a desert to the Aral Sea. In the 1960s, the Soviet government, led by Nikita Khrushchev, decided to turn that vast desert steppe into new farmland!  So over the next decade, they built an enormous irrigation network, including 45 dams, 80 reservoirs and 20,000 miles of canals.  All to irrigate the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan desert, turning it into sprawling fields of cotton and wheat. 

But the Soviet system was very poorly engineered from the start. 

Much of the water meant for the Aral Sea leaked out of the canals and never made it north. So not only was water being diverted to farmland at the expense of the Sea, the majority was soaked up by the desert and wasted.  Under normal conditions, the Aral Sea gets about 1/5 of its water from rainfall, with the rest from those 2 big rivers. Evaporation caused the water level to decrease faster than the amount that trickled in, causing the sea to slowly dry up.

In the decades that followed, the Aral Sea was slowly starved of its water source and reduced to a handful of smaller lakes, with a volume 1/10 the original size. As a consequence, the salinity of those remaining lakes increased due to evaporation, causing almost all fish that either survived, or that had been reintroduced, in the 1990’s to die off.

As a result, millions of fish perished over the decades.  Coastlines receded miles and miles from the fishing towns, leaving boats to rust on the now dry lake bed.  Those few Kazak’s and Uzbek’s who remained were plagued by dust storms that contained the toxic fertilizers and pesticides used by the Soviets in the desert.  Large herds of antelope vanished. Children of the fishermen moved away in search of city jobs elsewhere.

Where once you sailed from town to town, now you could drive across!

Fisheries and the villages that depended on them collapsed like Gold Rush ghost towns. The increasingly salty water became polluted with the dust blown fertilizer and pesticides. The salty dust also blew off the dry lake bed and settled onto farm fields, degrading the soil. Farmlands had to be flushed with greater volumes of river water to compensate.  It was a vicious cycle the Soviet government was unwilling to stop … and Uzbekistan has since continued.

Other dramatic consequences include the response by Mother Nature to man’s intervention.  The loss of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers drier.  The blowing contaminated dust from the exposed lake bed, became a public health hazard for the millions of people still in the region.  These include a rise in infant mortality rates, a decrease in life expectancy, and an increase in kidney and liver disease, respiratory infections, and birth defects.

By the year 2000, the lake had separated into the smaller North Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and the larger South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The southern Sea had further split into western and eastern lung-shaped lobes as it continued to dry up, first in the eastern lobe, then the western one.

By 2001, the southern lobes’ water connection had been severed.  The shallower eastern part retreated rapidly when drought cut off the flow of the Amu Darya river completely.  In 2014, the eastern lobe of the South Aral Sea completely disappeared.  The remaining western lobe is a salty toxic turquoise instead of deep blue.  90% of the once massive lake is now gone!

Satellite images shows that the southern basin of the once huge lake is now almost dry.

The Aral Sea before (left image) and after (right image)
The Aral Sea before (left image) and after (right image) Soviet intervention

In a last-ditch effort to save the smaller north lake, Kazakhstan and the World Bank built a dam between the northern and southern parts of the Aral Sea. The Kok-Aral dam, finished in 2005, prevents flow out of the North Aral into the lower South Aral. The dam has led fisheries in the North Aral to rebound as water levels rose again, though to the detriment of the South Aral.

So what lessons does our manipulation of the Aral Sea teach us?  For the future, the difficulty lies in we, as humans, being capable of predicting the ecological consequences of such massive projects before we undertake them. Our ecosystem is more fragile than we think.  The current worsening climate change, with its decades-long droughts, proves it. It must be the forefront of any such decision we make BEFORE we commit to such large scale actions.  For these well-intentioned, though ill-conceived, projects too often result in even larger, deadly repercussions for our beloved planet.

To quote American orator, Robert Ingersoll: “In nature there are no rewards, only consequences.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

5 thoughts on “Who Drained Russia’s Vast Aral Sea?

  1. I had heard of this massive once magnificent lake with its own very special eco system and as any were in this world of egotistical humans this disaster was brought on by one of us,I am sure that the people of the lake prior to this idiocy had a good life living of the lakes bounty and respecting and nurturing it for all time, it would seem that egotists never learn or care as it is shown by the antics of the poresent leader of this country.

      1. Greed and ignorance is the answer wealth is a disease of the mind,look at Putin never worked in his life,Russia did to the folks who lived and fished the Aral sea what Putin is doing to Ukraine.Humans kill and destroy every thing including themselves. Time is running out for the world we are on a wooden bridge that is on fire both ends the fire is closing in,( A wise plains Indian once said that when all the Buffalo are gone and the rivers dry up that’s it you cant eat money) this is our destiny GREED.

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  2. Paragraph 7: ” It was a viscous cycle the Soviet government was unwilling to stop and Uzbekistan has since continued.” “Vicious”, not “viscous.

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