environment

Can the Aral Sea be restored?

The Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake, and used to lie across the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It doesn’t any more. It’s gone, reduced to a tenth of its size. In its place is a wasteland of toxic sand, and one of the most spectacular examples of humankind’s destruction of nature.

Here’s a primer from NASA, who have watched the sea shrink from their satellites:

I last wrote about the Aral Sea in 2014, which was the year that the main southern basin finally dried up entirely and was renamed the Aralkum desert. But is that the end of the story? I thought it was worth looking up again, to see if anything has changed.

There are essentially two stories to tell from the area today, one on the Kazakhstan side of the lake, and one in Uzbekistan to the south. I’ll save the second one for another day.

As an inland sea, the Aral is fed by rivers. These were diverted into hydropower and irrigating cotton plantations during the Soviet era. This reduced water flow into the lake, and as it shrank it began to concentrate in salinity. What water that did still reach the sea came with all the run-off from the cotton, so vast quantities of pesticides and fertilisers washed in. Biodiversity collapsed as the Aral sea suffered a double whammy: it was both dried up and poisoned.

This was done knowingly, by the way. The loss of the lake was considered collateral damage, the price to pay for development of the arid lands of central Asia. It just sucked to be one of the fishing communities downstream.

Part of the problem is that the river systems that flow into the Aral Sea cover a large area and cross multiple borders. Under Soviet governance it could all be managed as a whole. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, it pitched independent nations against each other for the water. Uzbekistan wasn’t going to turn off the taps feeding the cotton. Kyrgystan wouldn’t dismantle their dams for the benefit of communities a thousand kilometres away.

In the early years of this century, Kazakhstan made a bold decision. They decided to split the Aral Sea and save the bit of it they could control. They built an 8 mile long dam to separate the northern pocket of the sea into an independent lake, with extensive improvements along the Syr Darya river to improve its flow. The works were completed in 2005, and water levels in the Northern Aral Sea began to recover. The delta and its wetlands began to revive, and as salinity levels fell, a broader diversity of fish began to return.

With the return of the fish came the return of people and communities. People who had left the region came back, and the fishing industry has been restored to the Northern areas of the sea. Yields have risen ten-fold, benefitting a region with widespread poverty.

What about the southern basin, now cut off from the restored north? That’s for next time. And the fact that only a fraction of the sea has been saved shouldn’t distract from the acheivement that this represents. The northern sea has been brought back to life. It’s a success story, and an example of ecological restoration on a large scale. “It’s a unique place, a revived sea” says Masood Ahmad of the World Bank. “It’s the Eighth Wonder of the World and should be recognized as such.”

Whether or not it would qualify as a wonder of the world, I don’t know. It’s certainly a credit to Kazakhstan, with potentially more to do, and it’s a hopeful sign for other heavily polluted lakes and seas. We need more of these kinds of stories too. There’s a big difference between ‘everything was destroyed’, and ‘much was destroyed, but we saved what we could’. One of those two phrases is likely to summarise the 21st century, and we should draw strength from examples of restoration wherever we find them.

Ten years ago, one could talk about the Aral Sea as a story of disaster. Today there’s more to it. The defining images are still the hulks of abandoned ships, rusting into the sand. But they shouldn’t get the final word.

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