A Shrinking Sea Threatens Central Asia’s Future
Covering more than 26,000 square miles, the Aral Sea was once one of the largest lakes in the world, located in one of the planet’s most fertile regions. But between 1962 and 1994, the Soviet Union diverted the two rivers feeding the sea – the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – to irrigate cotton fields. As a result, the Aral Sea’s water level fell more than 50 feet and the total volume of water in the sea was reduced by 70 percent. As its water levels declined, the sea became mineralized. What had once been a single large body of water instead became four small lakes, leaving a dried seabed and degraded ecosystem behind.
The region’s formerly thriving fishing industry is now largely eliminated, contributing to significant unemployment and economic stress. Chemicals blowing off the dry, former seabed have contributed to increased incidences of anemia and cancer in the region. The area is home to one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Another impact: the sea’s retreat has affected climate patterns in the region. Summers are hotter and drier, and winters are colder and longer.
The region falls within the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and both countries are working to save and replenish the sea. Kazakhstan completed a dam project in 2005 and within three years, the water level in the North Aral Sea had risen from a depth of 30 meters to 42 meters. While this progress is a sign of progress to restore a heavily damaged resource, much more work remains to be done. The legacy of the Aral Sea shows that the effects of poor water management can be devastating, regardless of the size of the original water body.