In his book Water: Life in every drop, Julian Caldecott describes the Aral Sea as “one of the most spectacular ecological disasters of the Twentieth Century”. That disaster is now in its final stages, as new satellite images revealed this month that the whole eastern lake is now gone. What we have in its place is a desert – the Aralkum.
It’s a fascinating story. Just 50 years ago, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake, sitting across the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It had been a key oasis along the Silk Route, an important agricultural area in medieval times, and had a thriving fishing industry. Beginning around 1918, Soviet planners hatched an economic strategy for agriculture in Uzbekistan. They diverted the rivers that feed into the Aral Sea away into the dry lands to the south. Building work went on for decades, constructing networks of canals that irrigated cereals and rice crops.
In particular, they wanted to grow cotton, which is a notoriously water-intensive at the best of times. Growing it in a desert is a particularly bad idea, but it did work. By the late 80s Uzbekistan was the world’s biggest exporter of cotton, and it’s still a major producer today.
The cost of that success was the lake, which had begun to shrink visibly as early as the 1960s. By the mid 8os the sea had split into four lakes, with the east and west northern lakes forming a ‘lesser’ Aral sea, and the two in the south known as the ‘greater’ Aral Sea.
When the USSR fragmented in 1990, many hoped that there may be an opportunity for a change of direction. The newly independent Uzbekistan thought otherwise, and perhaps understandably opted to push its cotton exports as one of its main assets. Fertiliser and pesticide use increased, increasing the pollution run-off into what remained of the sea.
Ten years ago, the Aral Sea had dropped to a quarter of its size. The lack of inflowing water had increased its salinity, which had killed off every species of fish and wrecked the fishing industry. An estimate 100,000 people were displaced. The vast plains of salty sand that remained were also creating a range of problems, from toxic dust storms to increased levels of cancer and respiratory diseases. Nothing grows in the polluted land, and the polluted dust has wrecked formerly fertile farming land. The desert has also destabilised the climate across much of central Asia.
The desert does present a new opportunity though, and it is currently being explored for oil and gas.
In 2001, the Kazakh government partnered with the World Bank to protect the northern part of the Aral Sea, and it has recovered to a certain degree. Fish have returned, and so have the fishermen. Part of the plan to save the lesser Aral Sea is to dam up the outflow into the Southern half, which means that it basically cannot be saved.
The Aral Sea is a disaster on an almost mythical scale, a parable of environmental mismanagement and hubris. But as Caldecott highlights, the planners knew the cost at the start – their projections showed exactly what would happen to the lake. They chose the economic opportunity. They chose growth.