Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

The story of Aral Sea

The desiccation of the Aral Sea is one of the best known of the many environmental tragedies to have afflicted central Asia. Straddling the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea was in 1960 the fourth-largest inland sea in the world, covering an area of more than 67,000 km2. It supported a thriving fishing industry, with a rich catch of carp, sturgeon, pike-perch, bream and roach.

Trading links had been established across its waters in Tsarist times, with Russian merchants in the port city of Aralsk trading with the Khanate of Khiva on its southern banks. But the Soviet authorities had long dreamt of diverting the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which nourished the Aral Sea, to irrigate the deserts of central Asia, allowing them to become a major centre for the production of cotton, their treasured 'white gold'. Irrigation canals were dug, such as the Kara Kum Canal in Turkmenistan, the longest irrigation canal in the world, which took waters of the Amu Darya westwards into the desert of the Kara Kum.

The result was that the amount of water reaching the Aral Sea fell sharply, and it began to recede. In the 1960s its water level fell on average by about 20cm a year, but this rate of shrinkage accelerated rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, the sea had split into two parts, the smaller Northern Aral Sea, within the territory of Kazakhstan, and the larger Southern Aral Sea, shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By 2004, its overall surface area was little more than 17,000 km2, only about a quarter of its original size. The Soviet planners fully expected the sea to contract: one of the great tragedies about the desiccation of the Aral Sea was that this was not the unintended consequence of the decision to focus on cotton production but one which had been predicted, its negative environmental consequences evaluated and then set aside.

The drop in the level of the water was accompanied by a sharp increase in its salinity. Freshwater fish could not survive, and in an effort to preserve some kind of fishing industry in the Aral the Soviet authorities introduced more salt-tolerant species, notably the flounder, brought in from the Sea of Azov. But the receding waters, which left the port town of Aralsk marooned far from the coast, defeated attempts to retain a fishing industry. The desiccation of the sea resulted in large salt plains, whipped up into dust storms and salt storms. Containing toxic chemicals, the result of the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides in the cotton industry, these tormented the villagers of the region. Soils were contaminated and sources of drinking water polluted. Local people began to suffer a range of health problems.

Within the receding sea lay further, even more sinister, threats. A large island in the southern part of the sea, with the, under the circumstances, somewhat ironic name of Vozrozhdenie ('Renaissance'), was chosen in the Soviet period, for its remoteness and dry climate, as an open-air test site for biological weapons. Referred to only as Aralsk-7, the site was the testing ground for a range of agents, including anthrax, brucellosis, plague, smallpox and typhus, with a variety of animals used as victims. Monkeys were apparently particularly favoured. With the break-up of the Soviet Union the site was abandoned in 1991, and officially closed the following year. But by this stage the desiccation of the sea had caused the island to expand to about ten times its original size, and it has now joined the mainland, at its southern coast in Uzbekistan. US experts worked urgently with colleagues from the region to neutralise anthrax dumping grounds on the island.

The local authorities in the Aralsk area had twice attempted to redress the falling levels of the Northern Aral Sea, into which the Syr Darya flows, by the construction of sand dykes across the Berg Strait, which lies between the two sections of the sea. On each occasion some positive effects were noted before the dykes were washed away, in 1992 and 1998. A larger project was developed between the Kazakhstan Government and the World Bank, providing for the construction of the Kokaral Dam to help the Northern Aral Sea recover, coupled with renovation works along the Syr Darya River to increase water flow. Work on the Kokaral Dam was completed in August 2005, resulting in a rise in the level of the water of the Northern Aral Sea and an increase of some 13% in its surface area. With rehabilitated waterworks along the Syr-Darya also helping by increasing the flow of water into the sea, by 2010 the North Aral had crept back to within 23km of Aralsk and attained a depth of 20m.

Now, a new dyke, 4m higher than the Kok-Aral Dam, is to be built across the mouth of Saryshyganak Bay, the northeastern arm of the sea that used to reach Aralsk. At the same time a new channel from the Syr-Darya will be cut to feed water into Saryshyganak Bay. The new dyke is scheduled to be ready by 2014, and it is hoped that the waters will reach Aralsk in 2015. Zhalanash, site of the ‘ship cemetery’ and currently about 10km from the water, may again become a real fishing village.

Salinity levels in the Northern Aral Sea have declined sharply, and freshwater fish are starting to return. The poor saltwater-loving flounder is rather less than happy at the turn of events, but is in a minority.

In the 1990s the fishing catch in the North Aral was limited to flounder, a flatfish that proved to be the only species able to survive the Aral’s extreme salinity then. Since 2005, 15 types of freshwater fish have returned to the North Aral. Fishers travel from their villages, often now 25km or 30km from the shore, to take out small boats from which they catch carp, catfish, pike and the valuable pike-perch, which is exported to Russia. The remaining flounder are now so small, because of the freshness of the water, that they are usually thrown back. The total annual catch is around 2000 tonnes, about one-tenth of what the Aral used to provide. Locals also hope that revival of the North Aral and Saryshyganak Bay will reduce the noxious sandy, salty windstorms that plague communities such as Aralsk.

The Kok-Aral Dam has condemned the South Aral to accelerated evaporation, but most experts consider the supersaline, fishless South Aral already a lost cause, with no hope of an increase in water from its main source, the Amu-Darya, which flows through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed satellite photos show that the once-far-bigger South Aral may already be smaller than the North Aral.

Meanwhile, the World Bank argues that the dam does not deprive the Southern Aral Sea of water, since their Northern Aral Sea project is resulting in enhanced flows by means of a better-regulated Syr Darya, and excess waters in the Northern Aral Sea are sent to the southern part by spillway. But with the fate of the Southern Aral Sea strongly linked to inflows from the Amu Darya, from which take-off for irrigation purposes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remains high, the future of the southern part of the sea continues to look bleak.