Perhaps you thought that you would not attend the disappearance of a sea during the period of our brief existence as humans, especially if we compare it with the gigantic time scale of our planet. I’m sorry to say you were wrong.

The Aral Sea is an endorheic lake or inland sea located in Central Asia, between Kazakhstan to the north, and Uzbekistan to the south. Formerly, it was one of the four largest lakes in the world, just behind the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior and Lake Victoria. While it is true that the Aral Sea has not completely disappeared yet, it has done in the way in which we knew it.Aral_Sea

1. Evolution of the Aral Sea between 1989 (left) and 2008 (right). Source: Earth Observatory, NASA.

In the 1930s, the surface of this endorheic lake was 67,000 km², an only and continuous mass. However, in the 1980s and thereafter, the sea dried up and separated into two well-differentiated waterbodies: the northern, lesser, dammed and fed by the waters of Syr Darya, and the southern, a residual mass sentenced to disappear, fed by the Amu Darya.

What has happened to make the Aral Sea disappear?

This sea-oasis located in the middle of the desert regions of Karakalpakistan (Uzbekistan) was maintained in a delicate balance between evaporation and the water supply of both Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The Uzbek and Kazakh population living in the Aral environment did so in harmony with the core of their local development, through fishing, commercial activities related to the sea, subsistence agriculture and, of course, water use for self-sufficiency.

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2. Map of the Aral Sea basin. Source: UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service.

The balance was broken during the 60s. The collapse of the system originated from the hand of the former Soviet Union, when Stalin ordered to execute canalization works to irrigate the plains adjacent to the Syr Darya River and the Amu Darya delta, doubling then the area of cultivation, which went from 4 million hectares to 8 million. These canalization works turned out to be inefficient, and a lot of water was lost along the way. If not enough, the agricultural species chosen for that region were mostly cotton and rice, two types of crop that require a very high amount of water for their production.

Así se cambió el curso de los ríos Amu Darya y Syr Darya
3. In this way were changed the course of the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Source: Exectutive Committee, International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, 2010.

Given this scene, the catastrophe was assured, and it is not surprising. Aleksandr Voeikov, considered the most important climatologist in Russian history, was quoted by the competent authorities, saying “Aral Sea is an useless evaporator, a mistake of nature”, in order to justify the expansion of cotton, economically more profitable as raw material in the textile sector.

The consequences of the tragedy

The alteration of the course of water from the Amu Darya and Sir Darya rivers supposed for around 90% of their annual flow, and from 1960 to 2008, the population of the Aral basin doubled, reaching 60 million people as a result of the increasing of the irrigation. This demographic pressure has enlarged the severity of the outlook even more, since those who are settled in the surroundings of the dying sea are suffering the collateral damages: Esophageal cancer, Tuberculosis and different sorts of respiratory diseases, which are a consequence of the storms of salt and dust, which also contain residues of the pesticides used upstream. There is still more: these diseases have been aggravated by the existence of a microbiological war testing ground on the ancient Vozrozhdeniya Island, which today is a peninsula.

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4. Abandoned boats in what was once the Aral Sea. Source: Wikipedia.

The desiccation of the sea has provoked the salinity of the water to increase from 10 g/l to 110 g/l; an outrage when we consider that the average density of the sea on Earth is 35 g/l. Obviously, the region’s population and ecosystem are barely surviving because of the scarcity of a vital resource such as water.

Another consequence of the disappearance of the Aral Sea is the increase of the thermal amplitude, in an area that formed an oasis in the middle of the desert and that now is paradoxically more extreme for life than the desert itself, due to the toxicity of the ground.

Palliative measures

It is clear that the management of the natural resources of the Aral basin has been disastrous, either by the leaders of the former USSR or by the leaders of the ex-Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, that share the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya in some of its stretches.

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5. Map of the Caucasus and Central Asia, with the Aral Sea located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Source: Wikipedia.

These five countries have had conflicting interests in the management of the water of the Darya Rivers, and each one claims ownership of it. In order to solve this diplomatic blockade, the five “Stan” created in 1992 the Interstate Commission for Hydrological Coordination, whose main topics of debate revolve around the ownership of water and the responsibility of the countries upstream to the countries of the low course.

To date, the only action taken has been the impoundment of the North Aral Sea, through the Kokaral dam, which has obtained very good results during the first years, recovering the water level. However, this decision benefits the Kazakh side of the Aral Sea and inexorably condemns the hopes of recovery of the southern part, on Uzbek land, which is deprived of the water supply of the river Syr Darya.

Fortunately, the gravity of the situation has generated many proposals to avoid the extinction of the South Aral Sea. The most accepted are the improvement of the quality of irrigation canals; The imposition of fees on farmers for the use of river water; The introduction of alternative cotton species whose cultivation requires less water; And even a Caspian-Aral transfer channel, as the level of the Caspian Sea has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years and has some surplus.

However, what is the correct measure? Should the future of the South Aral Sea be sacrificed in favour of the North Aral Sea, bearing in mind that the best forecasts do not guarantee the recovery of the Sea as we knew it? Nevertheless, is there any real interest in conserving the ecosystem of the Karakalpakistan Region by the countries involved? After telling the saddest story of all the seas, there may not be much hope left.

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