The long lingering death of the Aral Sea is humanity’s biggest crime against the planet. The Aral was once the 4th largest in-land body of water in the world, and teeming with life. The Aral Sea is now the 10th largest sea, a fourth of its former size and mostly dead. Once a lake of the Soviet Union, it is now international waters bordered by Kazakhstan on the north and Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan) in the south. Between them both, the Aral Sea is dying.
But this week Kazakhstan announced it had secured a multi-million dollar loan from the World Bank to help save some of the Sea. The project will not restore the Aral Sea to her former glory, but may preserve the northern part of the sea. The funds will add a second dam to the first created in 1998. The dams between the two halves will be a benefit to the Northern part of the Sea but will accelerate the death of the south.
The tragedy of the Aral dates back to a decision made in 1918 and reached its recriminations by the 1970s. The Aral Sea is a desert region, and is fed by two great rivers that rise in the mountains of Tajikstan. These rivers are the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. In 1918 the young Soviet government, fighting for its life against the Whites, believed it would be a good idea to use these rivers to irrigate the desert region and feed the people of the revolution. Both the revolution and the irrigation project were eventually successful. Kazakhstan is today one of the world’s leading exporters of cotton.
The Soviet Union diverted the waters of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Not surprisingly, the sea quickly began to shrink. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union knew there was a problem. In 1968 a Soviet engineer said "it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable". But there was no turning back. According to the Soviets, the Aral was "nature's error". Instead they redoubled their efforts to empty its water. By 1980, they had dug enough canals to stretch three times to the moon. Almost the entire flow of the two rivers was diverted to grow cotton in the desert.
In 1990, the shrinking Sea split into two. The falling waters cut the North, or "Small" Aral Sea off from the bigger southern part. In 2001 the island Vozrozdeniya lost its long status as an off-shore entity and re-joined the mainland. The former island was a secret biological research station. It is a toxic time bomb set to infect central Asia with some of the deadliest germs on Earth. By cruel irony, space photos showed the southern sea now resembled two collapsing lungs. Two years on, the Northern Sea was again chopped in two.
While the shape of the sea was mutating, what water remained became increasingly salty. All the sea’s freshwater fish died. And the fishing ports were now 40km inland. The fishermen moved on. Those that remained were poisoned by exposed seabeds, full of the run-off of salt and pesticides. Over the past 15 years chronic bronchitis has increased by 3,000 per cent in the area, arthritic diseases by 6,000 per cent.
When the Communists collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan won its independence. The new government inherited 2.7 square kilometres of what was to become the ninth largest country in the world. They also inherited half of the Aral Sea. Today, the people of the northern Aral Sea region rely on raising animals in barely survivable conditions while those in the Uzbek south, blessed with more annual rainfall, are able to grow limited albeit salty crops near the Syr-Darja river.
The newly independent nation decided to try to rescue what was left of the Sea. They used a $65 million World Bank loan to build a dam across Berg Strait, the North’s narrow connection with the southern sea. The dam has helped the north. The waters are flowing back towards Aralsk, the main port in the north, having previously retreated as far as 80km. Fishermen are going to sea again, and the government has announced they will release 30 million young fish into its waters to restock the North Aral. With the money from the latest loan yesterday, Kazakhstan will build a second dam which they hope will bring the water back to the deserted port of Heralsk. Kolbai Danabayev, vice-mayor of Aralsk says "There are seven wonders in the world and the eighth is the dam on the Aral Sea”. His optimism is understandable, though Karakalpakstanis may not agree.