The Disappearing Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is a saltwater lake in central Asia which was once the fourth largest lake in the world. From the 1960s onwards the rivers which flowed into the Aral Sea have been diverted away to irrigate cotton fields. Starved of inflowing water, the Aral Sea has shrunk to such an extent that today it is less than ten per cent of its original size.

Aral Sea 1989 - 2008
Comparison of the Aral Sea 1989 and in 2008.

The near loss of the Aral Sea has caused devastation to both the economy and environment of the surrounding areas and has been called one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters by the United Nations (1).

Formation and Early History

The Aral Sea is thought to have formed several million years ago. Movements in the surface of the earth created a depression which was filled by the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers creating the Aral Sea between what is now five modern-day nations (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan). At around half the size of England, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world (behind the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior and Lake Victoria). Indeed, its size and salinity often led to it being referred to as a sea proper. Not being directly connected to any other large body of water, the Aral Sea relied on being fed by water flowing from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers to replace the water lost through evaporation and maintain a stable water level.

Aral Sea in 1865
An illustration of Russian ships on the Aral Sea in 1865.

By the mid-1800s the Aral Sea had become a key economic hub for the surrounding area. The city of Aralsk on the northern shore of the sea grew quickly as its fishing industry expanded, eventually employing 40,000 people (2) and its harbour was enlarged to accommodate the growing number of vessels needing to dock there, while other towns and villages which were located around the Aral Sea also grew as people came to the area to work in the increasing number of industries located there. The Russian Empire saw the strategic significance of the Aral Sea, disassembling a number of vessels and transporting them overland to be re-built at the Aral Sea to provide protection for trade routes and resolve disputes over fishing or territory.

Soviet Irrigation Projects and the Decline of the Aral Sea

The Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers supplied around eighty per cent of the water needed to maintain the Aral Sea, with the rest coming from smaller rivers, rainfall and snowmelt (3). This kept the Aral Sea maintained at its maximum size of around 270 miles (from north to south) and 150 miles across (from east to west) (4). The maximum depth of the western shoreline was sixty-nine metres, although the average depth was much shallower at sixteen metres (4). As Micklin et al. state:

“During the first six decades of the twentieth century the sea’s water balance was remarkably stable with annual river inflow and net evaporation never far apart, resulting in lake level variations over this period of less than 1m” (p 1) (5).

In the late 1940s the Soviet Union had began a series of projects which had been known as the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. This involved creating artificial canals and reservoirs throughout the Soviet Union to convert arid and unproductive land into fertile farmland to avoid a repeat of the famine of 1947. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 the plan continued and by the 1960s attention turned to the Aral Sea and how it could be used to irrigate the surrounding areas to make them suitable for farming and growing cotton. Canals were cut into the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers to divert much of their flow away from the Aral Sea and towards the surrounding land.

Stalin Poster
A Soviet propaganda poster used to promote the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. The text at the top of the poster reads: “We’ll conquer drought, too.”

This was successful at achieving its aim. Water irrigated the previously barren lands and at its peak 1.47 million hectares were producing cotton from the region around the Aral Sea (6). This, however, came at a great cost. Enormous amounts of water were lost due to the poor standard of construction of the canals with between one quarter and three quarters of the water leaking away before reaching the cotton fields (7). From 1960 onwards the level of the Aral Sea, now starved of the rivers which were essential to replenish it, began to drop. In 1960 the level was an average of 53.3 metres. By 1970 this had fallen to 51.4 metres and by 1990 the level was 38.2 metres (8). During the same timescale, the area of the Aral Sea also reduced considerably from 23,300 square miles in 1970 to 12,300 square miles in 1990 (8).

Cotton fields in Kazakhstan
Cotton fields in Kazakhstan irrigated with water from the Aral Sea.

In 1987 the Aral Sea had shrunk to such an extent that it split into two separate bodies of water, the smaller North Aral Sea, located mostly in Kazakhstan and the larger South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. This meant that tens of thousands of miles of what had once been seabed were now barren, exposed land which became known as the Aralkum Desert. In 2003 the South Aral Sea continued to shrink and two separate lakes connected by a narrow channel. By 2014 the easternmost lake had dried out entirely, meaning that the entirety of the South Aral Sea now consists only of the remaining western lake.

Intentions of the Soviet Government

Northern River Reversal
The proposed Northern River Reversal would have seen water diverted from the Ob River to replenish the Aral Sea, as well as other areas across the Soviet Union.

The Soviet government’s long term plan for the Aral Sea when they started the irrigation work in the 1960s remains disputed. The writer Tom Bissell has stated that the Soviets saw the Aral Sea as “nature’s error” and were fully aware that their irrigation plans would lead to the loss of the sea, quoting a Soviet government source as saying that he hoped the sea would “die a beautiful manner” (9). Others writers have disputed this. Michael Glantz has argued that the Soviets did have plans to restore the Aral Sea. This would have been achieved through the Northern River Reversal, a grandiose plan to divert rivers that flow into the Arctic Ocean towards the arid lands of Central Asia. This would have included a project to create a canal running from the Ob River in Siberia to the Aral Sea to restore its water level. While the Northern River Reversal had been in the planning stages since the 1930s the immense cost and impracticality of such a scheme meant that little actual work was done to implement it, although it was not officially cancelled until the 1980s (10).

Environmental Impact

The reduction of the Aral Sea to a fraction of its previous size has had major ecological and environmental impacts on the region and has also had severe economic consequences for the 3.5 million people who live in the region of the Aral Sea basin. Furthermore, it is now believed that the loss of the sea has led to significant health issues in people living in the Aral Sea region.

Animated Map of Aral Sea
Animated showing the shrinking of the Aral Sea © NordNordWest.

As the sea has receded vast expanses of land which were once seabed have become the Aralkum Desert. This desert is covered in dried out silt, sand and salt which can be whipped up into enormous dust storms. These storms can last for days and have been known to damage crops and livestock and cause breathing difficulties for people caught up in them (11). A particularly severe dust storm in 2018 that lasted for three days led to flights from Urgench International Airport in Uzbekistan being cancelled as salt and sand was caught up in winds travelling at speeds up to twenty metres per second.

A rusting ship stranded
A rusting ship stranded on the sands of Aralkum Desert, an area which was once the seabed of the Aral Sea.

The cotton industry which the Soviet government tried to cultivate in the Aral Sea region also used extremely high levels of pesticides and insecticides, with 72kg per hectare used, compared to 1.6kg per hectare in the USA (12). Long-lasting chemicals contained in these insecticides have now polluted the remnants of the Aral Sea as well as much of the surrounding region, leading to reduced crop production and health problems for much of the population. The reduction of the Aral Sea has also caused the region’s climate to change. The existence of such a vast body of water helped stabilise the temperature of the surrounding area. With the much-reduced size of the Aral Sea summers in the region are now hotter, and winters colder. This has led to a shortened growing season for farmers, exacerbating the economic issues caused by the loss of the Aral Sea.

Flounder
Attempts have been made to introduce flounder into the Aral Sea.

At its maximum size the Aral Sea had been slightly saline at around 10 g/l (grams per litre) meaning it was classed as a slightly saline lake. It contained freshwater fish species including carp, rudd, perch, sturgeon, stickleback and zander, the latter being the most commercially important to the Aral Sea fishermen. As the Aral Sea reduced in size the salinity levels of the remaining water began to increase, reaching 100 g/l in the South Aral Sea (7). This meant that many of the freshwater fish species could no longer survive and began to die out and eventually, the remaining Aral Sea became so high in salinity that the water was too toxic for most of the aquatic life which had once been present to survive. In the mid-1990s Danish scientists started a programme to artificially introduce flounder to the Aral Sea, as this flatfish species can survive in water that is high in salinity. This was partially successful and allowed a small flounder fishery to become established, although it only generated a fraction of the employment which the sea’s fisheries had provided in the 1960s (13).

The City of Moynaq

The City of Moynaq
Left: Moynaq is now situated in a desert but the welcoming people to the city features a seagull and a fish, a reminder of the once-thriving fishing industry. Right: the lighthouse at Moynaq is now many miles away from the sea, and grows further away as the waters of the Aral Sea continue to retreat.

The City of Moynaq in western Uzbekistan provides a case study for the impact that the loss of the Aral Sea has had on people living in the area. Located on what was once the southern shore of the Aral Sea, Moynag was a thriving port city that was home to between 30,000 and 40,000 people. Many were employed in the successful fishing industry which in turn supported a fish canning industry that produced around 20 million tins of seafood each year (14). Today, the Aral Sea has receded to such an extent that Moynag is located ninety miles away from the shoreline of the Aral Sea. Rusting ships that once formed the fishing fleet litter the land around Moynag, and the city’s lighthouse now overlooks miles and miles of desert. Today the population of Moynaq is believed to number just several thousand, with adventurous tourists coming to view the stranded fishing boats offering one of the few sources of income for the remaining inhabitants. A six-metre (20ft) high sign which features a picture of a seagull and a fish is situated on the main road into Moynag – a reminder that the city was once a bustling port city built on fishing and fish processing.

Vozrozhdeniya Island

Vozrozhdeniya Island (also known as Rebirth Island) was an island in the Aral Sea. Up until the 1960s, the island was small, covering an area of around seventy-seven square miles but as the Aral Sea began to dry up the island increased in size, becoming ten times its original size by the year 2000. In 2001 Vozrozhdeniya Island became connected to the mainland by a strip of land, and by 2014 the Aral Sea had shrunk to such an extent that Vozrozhdeniya Island no longer existed, as it had simply become part of the Aralkum Desert.

Vozrozhdeniya Island in 1994
A satellite image of Vozrozhdeniya Island taken in 1994 before it became connected to the mainland.

Exactly what went on at Vozrozhdeniya Island during the Soviet era has never been officially confirmed, but what is clear is that from the late 1940s until the fall of the Soviet Union the island was used as a test site for biological weapons. Satellite photography showed that Vozrozhdeniya Island contained barracks, a rifle range and research laboratories (15). It is believed that military scientists developed biological weapons on the island which could be used to deliver bubonic plague, smallpox and anthrax, with experiments taking place to genetically modify such diseases to make them resistant to existing vaccinations and medication (15).

In 1971 a research scientist was infected with smallpox – despite already having received a vaccination to protect against the disease – when the boat she was on passed Vozrozhdeniya Island. She went on to infect nine further people, three of whom died (16). In 1972 two fishermen were found dead in their boat in waters near the island with no apparent cause of death ever being found, and tens of thousands of antelope were found dead on the mainland opposite Vozrozhdeniya Island in 1988, again with no cause of death being apparent (16).

In the late 1980s the Soviet government disposed of 200 tons of anthrax by burying it under the ground at Vozrozhdeniya Island (16). In 2002, following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the US government became concerned that a terrorist organisation may be able to recover the anthrax and use it to create a biological weapon (17). A team of US scientists were sent to the island and tasked with making the area safe. It remains unclear what exactly was done but the BBC report that the anthrax may have been buried deeper under tons of extremely powerful powdered bleach (16), although as anthrax spores can remain active for centuries it is almost certain that at least some anthrax will still be present at the site.

Anthrax spores on a Petri dish
Anthrax spores on a Petri dish.

Journalist Nick Middleton travelled to Vozrozhdeniya Island in 2005 to film a documentary. In an interview with the BBC, he said that the military research facilities on the island have not been properly decommissioned and described seeing vats of unknown chemical substances, discarded scientific equipment and hazmat suits left in abandoned laboraties. In the interview he said “the research buildings aren’t cleaned up at all … it just looks like they trashed the place and left” (16). Despite this access to the site of Vozrozhdeniya Island is not restricted. Although it is remote and difficult to reach, anyone travelling to the area is able to explore the remains of the island.

Partial Recovery of the North Aral Sea

Aral Sea in 2016
The Aral Sea in 2016 showing the split into the North and South Sea and the location of the Kokaral Dam.

Over the decades a wide range of ideas have been put forward to restore the Aral Sea, many of which would cost tens of billions of pounds to implement. These include repairing the badly constructed irrigation canals which lead to the Aral Sea to reduce water loss, creating a system of underground pipelines to replenish the Aral Sea and digging a 300-mile long channel to connect the Aral Sea to the Caspian Sea. Due to the immense cost and impracticality of these ideas, none of them progressed beyond the planning stage. It was not until the 1990s and the launch of the Aral Sea Basin Programme that a realistic and achievable plan to begin the restore a portion of the Aral Sea began to take shape (18).

This programme would see the Kazakh government work with the international community and receive funding from the World Bank to construct a dam across the Berg Strait that connects the North and South Aral Sea. This would keep water within the North Aral Sea and prevent it from draining away into the South Aral Sea basin. Further work would see the irrigation channels of the Syr Darya river repaired which would increase the flow of the river into the North Aral Sea, increasing the water levels and allowing the sea to begin to recover. This plan, however, would only help restore the North Aral Sea. The government of Uzbekistan, which is responsible for most of the South Aral Sea, has not been receptive to plans suggested by the international community to restore their portion of the Aral Sea and appear reluctant to divert the Amu Darya river away from irrigating the cotton and crop fields. Because of this, it is inevitable that what remains of the South Aral Sea will continue to reduce in size. Although snowmelt, groundwater and rainfall mean that it is unlikely to disappear completely the size it will eventually stabilise at is unknown and it could once again separate into several more much smaller lakes as it continues to shrink.

North Aral Sea
Animation showing the partial recovery of the North Aral Sea between 2000 and 2011. The black outline shows the land covered by the Aral Sea at its previous pre-1960s size.

Work on the eight-mile-long dam, which was named the Kokaral Dam, began in the early 2000s and was completed by the summer of 2005, at a cost of £62 million (19). Its impact immediately became apparent. National Geographic reported that the depth of the North Aral Sea increased by 3.3 metres (11ft) within seven months of the dam being constructed – scientists had believed that this would take three years to reach this level (20). The city of Aralsk had once sat on the shoreline of the Aral Sea, but by the mid-2000s the shoreline had retreated almost thirty-one miles away from the city. Since the Kokaral Dam has been built and the North Aral Sea has begun to refill the sea is now only nine miles away from the city (21).

This recovery has also seen fish return to the North Aral Sea. Before the construction of the Kokaral Dam the only fish which were found in the North Aral Sea was the flounder which had been introduced in the 1990s as this was the only species that could survive such high salinity levels. As the water level has risen the salinity of the North Aral Sea has reduced from 30 g/l to 8 g/l. This has allowed freshwater species such as bream, roach and the commercially important zander to be reintroduced (22). Fish catches have risen from 1,360 tons of flounder in 2006 to 7,100 tons of mixed species in 2016 (22).

Emerging Problems

In 2018 the maximum quota of fish that could be caught was set at a maximum of 8,200 tons, as fish stocks within the North Aral Sea are still fragile and will require careful management if they are to fully recover. However, problems have emerged with illegal and unregulated fishing taking place as many of the fishermen in the area prioritise maximising catches ahead of the conservation of stocks (22). National Geographic also report that attempts to implement a closed season for fishing between May and July to allow fish to spawn is widely ignored with illegal fishing taking place at night when it is difficult to enforce the closure.

Despite the success of the Kokaral Dam there have been difficulties in implementing further phases of the programme which would have brought about further recovery to the North Aral Sea. Plans to spend £215 million between 2016 and 2021 to increase the height of the Kokaral Dam have not happened, nor has a separate scheme to repair canals around the Syr Darya river to increase the amount of water flowing into the sea (23). The reasons for the delay are not known, although the failure of the Kazakh and Uzbek governments to reach an agreement on how to proceed is believed to play a major role in the lack of progress (23).

Summary

Aral Sea Children
While there is a recovery of the North Aral Sea, there are still major environmental and economic problems facing the rest of the region.

The loss of most of the Aral Sea has been one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters, showing the folly of large scale Soviet-era projects which attempted to control and manipulate the natural environment with no concern for issues that would be caused in the future. While the partial recovery of the North Aral Sea is celebrated it should be remembered that this represents only a small portion of what was once the Aral Sea. Indeed, the World Bank was correct when it referred to the project it started to build the Kokaral Dam as “saving a corner of the Aral Sea” (24). The issues of dust storms, pesticides, chemicals and localised climate change that result from the desiccation of the South Aral Sea will continue and there are still few answers as to how they will be solved.

References:

  1. Aral Sea ‘One of the Planets Worst Environmental Disasters’, Daily Telegraph, 5th April 2010
  2. The Aral Sea and Its Fleets, The Shipyard Blog, 11th August 2011
  3. The Aral Sea, World Atlas
  4. Aral Sea, Britannica.com
  5. Micklin, P., Aladin, N. V. and Plotnikov, I. (eds.), (2014), The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake, Springer.
  6. Edelstein M. R., Cerny, A. and Gadaev, A. (eds.), (2012) Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability, Emerald Books.
  7. The Aral Sea Crisis, Columbia.edu
  8. Chronology of the Aral Sea: Events from the 16th to the 21st Century, Springer.com
  9. Bissell, T., (2002), Eternal Winter: Lessons of the Aral Sea Disaster, Harper’s Magazine
  10. Glantz, M. (1999) Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin, Cambridge University Press
  11. It’s Raining Salt: Toxic Aral Sea Storm Sparks Health Fears In Central Asia, Radio Free Europe/Liberty Radio
  12. Ataniyazova, O. A., (2003), Health and Ecological Consequences of the Aral Sea Crisis, 3rd World Water Forum, Panel III: Environmental Issues in the Aral Sea Basin
  13. The Fishery in the Aral Sea – Perspectives for the Future Flounder Fishery, Levendehav.dk
  14. The Aral Sea: Central Asia’s Shrinking Water Resource, Upperdarbysd.org
  15. Welcome to Anthrax Island, The Guardian, 21st April 2005
  16. The Deadly Germ Warfare Island Abandoned by the Soviets, BBC.com
  17. Are We Safe Yet?, CNN.com
  18. Aral Sea Basin Programme, World Bank
  19. Kazakhstan: Measuring the Northern Aral’s Comeback, Eurasianet.org
  20. The Country That Brought a Sea Back to Life, BBC.com
  21. The Aral Sea: The Difficult Return of Water, We Are Water Foundation
  22. Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life, National Geographic
  23. Northern Aral’s Promise Stunted by Dam Height, International Disputes, Eurasianet.org
  24. Saving a Corner of the Aral Sea, World Bank