The Loss of the Aral Sea

There are two major environmental disasters in the recent history of the former Soviet Union; Chernobyl and the Aral Sea. In 1960 the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake, but now due to irrigation demands the sea is only half its original size, it’s predicted that by 2010 it will only be a third of its original size, also three times as salty. This has devastated millions and millions of people who have depended upon the lake for its fish, water, reed beds and transport.

Since 1960 the level has decreased from 68,000 km� to a predicted level of 21,058 km� in 2010. The Aral Sea is situated among the deserts of central Asia, in south western Kazakhstan and north western Uzbekistan, near the Caspian Sea.

The loss of the Aral Sea is both an amazing and tragic story, which has resulted in many people becoming ill, impoverished or in fact both. The causes of the loss of volume within this sea are mainly man made and it’s only recently that scientists and doctors are beginning to realise the implications of those earlier actions.

It has now become widely accepted as one of the planets most serious environmental and human tragedies to have ever occurred.

This doesn’t just have implications upon the sea and its surrounding land. The knock on effect of this over the last forty years has seen the people of this region contract various diseases, such as cancer, kidney and liver diseases, arthritic problems, chronic bronchitis as well as a sharp increase in infectious diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis.

The maternal and infant death rates have also sharply risen due to the contaminated drinking water. The renowned strong north easterly winds in the region blow the lying salt and chemical residues, from the now arid sea bed across the surrounding areas.

The Vanishing Sea

The Aral Seas tributary rivers are the Syr Darya in the north and the Amu Darya in the south. These two feeders have been heavily tapped for irrigation purposes in recent decades, mainly for cotton fields and rice paddies. Therefore the seas levels have been dramatically decreasing and not being replenished.

The irrigation system being used in the 1960’s was not up to date and it required more water per hectare than it would do now. The long canals being built into the desert were unlined and this resulted in much loss of water and infiltration into the soil, which in turn made the soil became more saline. These more saline soils were irrigated, which required heavier water volumes to flush away the salts; huge levels of water were used to fill pore spaces in dry soils; large reservoirs were built that needed filling and in turn this increased the evaporation and filtration losses. Perhaps most surprisingly these new irrigation systems flushed the water straight into the desert instead of back into the rivers or the Aral Sea itself. The result has been an increasingly large difference between the river inflow and the evaporation sides of the seas balance. This has accelerated during the last four decades with disastrous effects. The water has gone but the salt levels or salinity has remained virtually the same, resulting in the salinity level actually rising within the seas because of the lower volume of water and the saline residues being left to settle upon the old and now arid sea bed.

In 1987, because of the continuing loss of water, the sea then divided into two water bodies; the smaller sea in the north and the larger one in the south. Each sea was fed by each respective river and because of this they developed their own water balances. A channel used to exist between the two seas, but in 1992 a dyke was built to stop the water from the smaller sea flowing into the larger one.

The two river deltas have also experienced much change, resulting in changes to the harvesting of the numerous types of reeds that grew on the river beds, lakes and wetlands in this area. Reeds were used for building and construction materials as well as being used to produce paper.

The Loss of the Aral Sea


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Human and environmental problems

The human and environmental aspects of the loss of the sea have been wide ranging and severe. The commercial fishing industry became obsolete in the 1980’s because the many species of fish were unable to adapt to the rapidly changing salinity levels of the water. Along with the rapidly receded shoreline (tens of kilometres), the access to the sea became hampered by fishing boats; fishermen resulted to using cars and jeeps to get to the waters edge. The water used to be very productive and produced many different species of fish, as well as serving as a major transportation route across the region. More importantly it used to employ over 60,000 people, whose livelihood have now all but disappeared. Efforts were made to keep the increasingly long navigation channels open to the further away ports such as Aral’sk in the north and Muynak in the south, but it became too costly and difficult, so they were abandoned.

It’s not just the sea that has suffered tremendous damage; the deltas of both rivers have been considered an ecological disaster zone. Because of the dryness, desertification is spreading and wiping out the flora and fauna types of plant life, which are being replaced by halophytic plants (plants that grow naturally in very salty soil); this in turn changes the surrounding wildlife and drives various animals and birds away from these areas, therefore damaging the ecosystem.

The picture below is a typical example of how much of the area surrounding the Aral Sea has now become, with fishing trawlers left on the old sea bed to rot and remind people of more prosperous times.

Many of the causes for the rises in these various diseases are directly linked to the low levels of the sea (high salinity level) and also the chemical residues that are being used for irrigation; they are washed into the sea and rivers from the farms upstream. Because of the old irrigation networks that are being used, there is a very high loss of water due to the irrigation channels lacking any kind of base sealing – this causes the water to evaporate and infiltrate itself back into the soil, which in turn also causes many problems.

Because of the high levels of salt, not just on the land but also in the atmosphere, the plant growth is being stunted and in some cases they are actually dying. This becomes counter productive and at the same time uses double the amount of water to yield the same crop.

The blowing salt, dust and chemical particles or residues are very much linked to the decline of health within the region. The above mentioned diseases and illnesses are proven to have risen drastically over the last forty years; some of them are now said to be at epidemic proportions.

Other illness or infections such as typhoid and dysentery are directly related the poor irrigation systems that are in place. These are what we know as third world medical, health and hygiene conditions. These are mainly due to consumption of poor quality drinking water, which is taken directly from the two rivers whose flow in the lower reaches, is largely comprised of irrigation drainage with little or no treatment. These infections have also grown because of the poor medical care, high fertility, poor diet and lack of sewerage systems within the region.

The mortality and morbidity and infant mortality and morbidity are the highest in the region consisting of the former USSR. In some localities the infant mortality rate is in excess of 100/1000 births, ten times the rate in the United States. In Muynak, a town to the south which has been isolated from the sea, there is growing concern that the whole town could be wiped out within a generation because of the growing illnesses. Nearly 70% of the town’s population have pre cancerous conditions; its annual death rate is 100/1000 – so it’s easy to see that these predictions are not over exaggerated. During the last 10 – 15 years, kidney and liver diseases, especially cancers, have increased thirty to forty fold, arthritic diseases by sixty fold and chronic bronchitis by thirty fold. On top of all of theses figures, it is also said that the women in the area all have a high level of lead, strontium and zinc in their blood. This is due to the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs in the region during the 1950’s and1960’s.

The salt seems to be the real killer and is the cause of cancer to the oesophagus (the passage between the mouth and the stomach), the most prominent cancer in the area. Ironically I find that the salt has a double effect on humans; first it enters the respiratory system and then it enters the food chain through all of the plants and animals that are eaten. It’s a vicious circle that seems nearly impossible to get out of.

The governments of these two regions deny that there is a health problem and that if there is one, it’s small and under their control. The problem is that cotton is the biggest export earner; if they stopped the irrigation, there would be no money coming in the fill the stomachs with contaminated food or drink – a very vicious circle indeed.


Since 1986 the Aral Sea problem has become a major issue in the former USSR, and a state commission was set up to try and solve the issues of the crisis. More recently organisations on a world wide basis have been becoming involved. The United Nations Environment programme, The World Bank, The Commonwealth of Independent States and the Global Infrastructure Fund have all become involved in stabilizing the Aral Sea.

Their goals are to improve land and water use, improve health and medical care, ensure delivery of water to the sea as well as stabilizing the dried bottom, to limit the deflation of salt and dust. Also to put less emphasis on the cotton production and concentrate more on increasing food supplies and improve the standard of living.

By letting the flow run freely from the rivers into the sea by not regulating it with the dams would hugely increase the water levels by 46 Km� per year. It’s estimated that this would restore the deltas and meet industrial needs. Then to keep on doing this for various years until the two seas were reunited. Although the level would be much lower than that of 1960; meaning the salinity would be still at a high level, commercial fish from the black, Mediterranean or the open sea could be introduced.

The problem is that even with all of the funding from the various organisations involved; it will cost millions of US dollars and also take a very long time for any of the implications to be achieved.

The Future

Kazakhstan and its neighbour Uzbekistan share the Aral’s waters with Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; together they have formed the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (Ifas). One of the most ambitious plans for the future within the region, involves the building of a massive dam to separate for ever, the two parts that the sea have now split into. It does have its down side though, if it succeeds, it means that the seas far bigger south section will never be restored. The dam is being built to replace an earlier mud – built version that collapsed last year; if successful it will raise the level of the sea to between 38 and 42 metres, a level not seen for more than a decade. This should also return a high percentage of the areas fishing industry, but the south sea will of course still have no fishing industry whatsoever.

The key issues of health and medical improvement, providing an adequate supply of clean drinking water could show major results within a decade, if implemented immediately. Reducing the severity of salt storms or dust storms is also a priority as this obviously causes much ill health. Planting salt tolerant vegetation across these areas and using chemicals to stabilise the loose surface material should ensure that the storms are not as dangerous to the residents.

All in all the future does seem to be a little brighter, but to implement all of the desired changes would take many years, and during those many years there would still be much death and suffering.


This really is a sad and sorry situation and at times it’s unbelievable – to think that a country as powerful as the former Soviet Union can allow these things to be going on in their back garden, beggars belief.

It’s apparent that the engineers and planners of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s underestimated the disastrous effects that their ideas and implementations were to have. They also played a balancing act with the social and economic benefits of those earlier decades, because they far outweighed any harm that may have happened to its people.

Although my conclusions are of course all in hindsight, it must be become of international importance that anything of this magnitude isn’t allowed to happen again. I’m sure that in today’s climate and with the world’s more highlighted approach to geographic and economic problems, it in fact won’t occur again.

The priority has to be the people’s health; the damage to the sea has already been done and seems to be beyond saving. So the health issues are of paramount importance, in order to being able to achieve a stable region – the salt, soil, clean water, use of less hazardous chemicals, should be addressed first. Once these problems have been addressed and in time the generation’s health is seen to be improving, the issues of the water levels and irrigation should then be addressed.

Much funding is going to be needed; it’s no good stopping the growing of cotton under it’s current system, because cotton is the biggest export earner, without it or any funding it would probably make the situation worse and it would definitely leave stomachs empty. Once again it appears to be a vicious circle that is going to take much time and much money to even touch the surface.

It almost leaves the officials and inhabitants of the area with no choice but to carry on as they are, and that is basically exactly what is happening. The sea is still shrinking, the cotton fields are still busy and the hospitals are still struggling to cope.

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