The Aral Sea Tragedy
“THE history of mankind knows no other example where, before the eyes of a single generation of people, an entire sea disappears from the face of the earth.”
After making that observation, R. V. Khabibullaen, a prominent member of the scientific community of the former Soviet Union, explained: “Alas, that is the sad fate that threatens the Aral Sea.”
This huge sea is located in the desert areas of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, formerly Asian republics of the Soviet Union. In 1960 it covered some 26,000 square miles [67,000 sq km], making it the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. Only the nearby Caspian Sea, North America’s Lake Superior, and Africa’s Lake Victoria were larger in area.
However, in the past 30 years, the Aral sea has shrunk more than a third in area and about two thirds in volume! Over 11,000 square miles [28,000 sq km] of the Aral, twice the area of the state of Connecticut, U.S.A., has vanished. The level of the sea has dropped more than 40 feet [12 m], and the water in places has receded from 50 to 60 miles [80 to 100 km] from its former shoreline. This has exposed an arid seabed of inhospitable sand where formerly beautiful blue waters teemed with fish. Once thriving fishing villages now lie abandoned many miles from shore.
During the late 1950’s, the Aral yielded an annual catch of some 100 million pounds [45 million kg] of marketable fish. Twenty-four species of freshwater fish abounded in the sea’s low salinity waters. Some 10,000 fishermen worked out of the port of Muynak alone, where 3 percent of the Soviet Union’s annual catch was processed. But now the sea’s thriving fishing industry, which once furnished employment for 60,000 people, is dead; the growing salinity of the Aral’s waters has killed the fish.
An Unparalleled Sight
Amazingly, Muynak, whose population has decreased from more than 30,000 to about 20,000, now lies more than 20 miles [30 km] from the receding Aral! A visitor from the United States, approaching the town by air, reported seeing “what look like toy ships listing in the desert.” Getting a closer look at the area when he was on the ground, he noted: “Dozens of huge iron fishing trawlers and other boats are tipped and partially buried, as though tossed miles inland by a massive tidal wave.”
When the waters of the sea began to recede, a canal was dug so that the boats in Muynak harbor could have access to the open sea. But the mayor of the town observed: “In the winter of 1974 the sea withdrew quickly, and by the spring, when the boats were usually launched, they were high and dry, and it was impossible to move them.”
What caused this tragedy?
Why the Sea Is Vanishing
From time immemorial the Aral was fed by two great rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. These rivers receive their water from the glacial melt of the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, to transform the arid Aral basin into a major agricultural area, the water was diverted into irrigation canals so that hardly any was left to flow into the sea.
The so-called Aral sea project was inaugurated in 1960, and shortly the land under irrigation had ballooned to about 17 million acres [6.8 million ha], twice that of California, U.S.A. The desert blossomed with crops, but soon the sea began to disappear.
Have the benefits outweighed the damage to the sea?
Benefits With Sad Consequences
The major crop is cotton, with about half the land being devoted to it. Before the Soviet Union was dissolved, 95 percent of the cotton it used came from this irrigated land of the Aral basin. Moreover, there was a surplus for export to provide needed cash. The area also produced about 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s rice.
In addition, the Aral basin became the country’s leading supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables, much as California is for the United States. And employment opportunities were provided for the area’s rapidly growing population of nearly 40 million people. Yet, little foresight was exercised relative to how the environment would be affected.
For example, irrigation canals were not cement lined. As a result, most of the water seeped into the sandy soil even before it reached the crops. In addition, huge amounts of dangerous pesticides were used, and to facilitate harvesting the cotton, potent herbicides were employed to defoliate the plants.
Thus, the damage to the environment has been great, going far beyond the ruin of the Aral sea’s fishing industry. For instance, each year tens of millions of tons of windblown sand and salt from the 11,000 square miles [28,000 sq km] of exposed seabed are whipped into great storms large enough to be spotted from space.
Fallout from these storms, in the form of either dust or rain, contains toxic levels of salts, pesticides, and other compounds. Parts of the Aral basin annually receive as much as a half ton per acre of this salt and sand mixture. And Aral dust has been spotted as far away as the Arctic shore of Russia.
Another frightening prospect is the effect that the shrinking Aral sea has had on the weather. The sea’s moderating influence on the weather has diminished so that summer temperatures are higher and those in winter are lower. In the spring, frosts occur later, and in the fall they come earlier, shortening the growing season.
Further, the deterioration of the Aral has caused a wholesale destruction of animal life. Over 170 animal species lived in the vicinity of the Aral a few years ago; now fewer than 40 do. In the early 1960’s, more than 600,000 muskrat skins a year were taken, now practically none are. The sea’s increased mineral content has killed the desert animals that drink from it.
Dying Land and Sick People
Tragically, the land is being poisoned by the concentration of salts in the soil. When desert soil is irrigated, the hot sun evaporates much of the water, concentrating the salts in the soil. In addition, when huge amounts of irrigation water soak into the ground, this gradually raises the water table. And when the contaminated water reaches the roots of plants, they are damaged by the water’s toxicity. That is what is happening in the Aral basin. “The same scourge that contributed to the decline of the early Mesopotamian civilizations,” one writer explained, “is claiming yet another victim.”
The people too are being poisoned. Pesticides and herbicides percolate down to contaminate well water. Thus, many people are drinking water laced with dangerous chemicals, and the consequences are tragic. “The local medical literature,” notes the magazine World Watch, “is filled with stories of birth deformities, increased liver and kidney disease, chronic gastritis, rising infant mortality, and soaring cancer rates.”
Dr. Leonid Elpiner, who specializes in health problems of the Aral sea, characterized the afflictions being experienced in the region as “pesticide AIDS.” He said: “The main objective, we think, is no longer to save the Aral Sea. It is to save the population.”
An editor for National Geographic, William S. Ellis, one of the first American visitors to the region, wrote: “The sea is an ongoing environmental tragedy—at least on a par, say many, with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986.” At a meeting in Muynak one man even called it “ten times worse.”
Truly, what has happened to the Aral sea is a tragedy. Yet, it was not intentional. Administrators meant well. They were trying to make the desert blossom to feed the people. But the execution of their plans caused terrible suffering, far outweighing the benefits.
Reflecting on the Aral sea tragedy, a writer noted the human responsibility to leave the earth for future generations “as a well-tended and ennobled place.” Unfortunately, the opposite has taken place here, as evidenced by the dramatic changes that began in the Aral basin over 30 years ago.
[Picture on page 24, 25]
The shoreline of the Aral sea has receded up to 60 miles [95 km], leaving boats stranded in the sand
David Turnley/Black Star
[Picture on page 26]
Irrigation turned the Aral basin into productive land but at great cost
David Turnley/Black Star