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The disappearing Aral sea

October 9, 2014

Aral sea lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was once one of the biggest lakes in the world (hence the name), with blossoming fishing industry supporting the surrounding areas. Now it’s almost gone.

Aral has been drying out since 1960s, when irrigation projects in this area had been developed by the Soviets. Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feeded the lake were used to hydrate cotton crops, often in places that were previously deserts. The river’s estuary got dry though, which affected the whole lake.

By 1990s, the water level was so low that it left ships resting on the sandy bottom. Since then, the problem was getting bigger. This year NASA released photos showing that Aral’s Eastern basin has completely dried up (picture below).

The Aral sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). By Producercunningham (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Aral sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right).
By Producercunningham via Wikimedia Commons

The dried sea is considered the worst environmental disaster ever and caused all kinds of complications. Not only did the fishing industry collapse, but the salt and toxic wastes (pesticides and fertilizers washed down by the rivers) were spread by the wind on the whole area. The absence of the Aral sea even changed the climate of the region, as the winters got colder while summers – hotter and dryer.

There’s also a rumour about weapon testing which took place in the Aral sea, though never confirmed. Some of the weapons might’ve been hidden on an island, which is now accessible on foot. There are probably some nuclear wastes floating in the air, too.

In 2005 the World Bank gave Kazakhstan credit to build a 13-kilometre-long dam splitting the Aral sea. This way by 2008, Syr Darya river was under control and 68% of the northern lake restored. Uzbekistan can’t afford to rechannel Amu Darya’s waters though, as its economy still heavily depends on cotton and other crops irrigated by the river.

Aral sea’s drying out is yet another example of people’s carelessness when it comes to environment. Irrigation project’s planners knew that the sea can dry out but probably didn’t care about the consequences.

abandoned_ship

Photo: Marc Morte

Photos in this post were taken in Muynak (Mo’ynoq) ship graveyard. Once a port and centre of fishing, the city became almost completely abandoned, with a few of its residents suffering from chronic illnesses. Rusty shipwrecks are Muynak’s main tourist attraction, as they rest on sand about 150 kilometres from the nearest water.


Sources:
voanews.com
thedailybeast.com
wikipedia.org