The Aral Sea – A Lake That Vanished

November 14th, 2018

Aral Sea
A rusting ship in the sands of what used to be the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea is in Central Asia, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It used to be the world’s fourth largest salt water lake, but in the 1960s, the Soviet government diverted the two rivers that fed the lake, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

The Soviets’ goal was to irrigate the desert region around the lake, but the result was far less positive. What happened over the ensuing years is widely considered to be one of the planet's worst environmental disasters. The moment Soviet canals started diverting the feeder rivers, the Aral Sea began losing all its water.

Aral Sea Map

By the year 1997, The Aral Sea had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size, becoming four separate lakes: The North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the formerly immense South Aral Sea, and one additional smaller lake. By 2009, two of the lakes had either disappeared or shriveled to a narrow strip of water.

The most recent satellite data from NASA, gathered in 2014, showed that the eastern basin of the Aral Sea is completely devoid of water. It is now called the Aralkum Desert.

The region used to enjoy a vibrant fishing industry, but that has been almost completely destroyed, causing wide spread unemployment and economic difficulties. As the water receded from the Aral Sea, the fisheries disappeared, and what water remained was increasingly salty, in addition to being polluted with fertilizer and pesticides.

Dust from the exposed lakebed mixed with agricultural chemicals and caused serious public health concerns, also damaging the soil of nearby farms. Even the area’s climate changed—without the influence of the massive body of water, winters became colder and summers have been hotter and drier.

The horrifying environmental impact on the area cannot be overstated. Everything changed. The geography, climate, economy, public health status, and population growth where all negatively affected.

If there is a silver ling to the tragedy of the Aral Sea, it’s that we now have a clear object lesson to inform us about man’s potential impact on the environment.