In the early 1960s, as part of the Soviet government plan for cotton, or "white gold", to become a major export, the Amu Darya river in the south and the Syr Darya river in the east were diverted from feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert in an attempt to grow cotton, melons, rice and cereals. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world's largest exporter of cotton. Cotton production is still Uzbekistan's main cash crop, accounting for 17% of its exports in 2006.
Large scale construction of irrigation canals began in the 1930s and was greatly increased in the 1960s. Many canals were poorly built, allowing leakage and evaporation. Between 30 and 75% of the water from the Qaraqum Canal, the largest in Central Asia, went to waste. It was estimated in 2012 that only 12% of Uzbekistan's irrigation canal length was waterproofed. Only 28% of interfarm irrigation channels, and 21% of onfarm channels have anti-infiltration linings, which retain on average 15% more water than unlined channels. Only 77% of farm intakes have flow gauges.
By 1960, between 20 and 60 km3 (4.8 and 14.4 cu mi) of water each year was going to the land instead of the Aral Sea and the sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral's level fell an average of 20 cm (7.9 in) per year. In the 1970s the rate nearly tripled to 50–60 cm (20–24 in) per annum, and in the 1980s to 80–90 cm (31–35 in) per annum. The amount of water taken for irrigation from the rivers doubled between 1960 and 2000. In the first half of the 20th century prior to the irrigation, the sea's water level above sea level held steady at 53 m. By 2010 the large Aral was 27 m and the small Aral 43 m above sea level.
The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets, they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, "It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea."
The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be "nature's error", and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, "it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable." On the other hand, starting in the 1960s, a large-scale project was proposed to redirect part of the flow of the rivers of the Ob basin to Central Asia over a gigantic canal system. Refilling of the Aral Sea was considered as one of the project's main goals. However, due to its staggering costs and the negative public opinion in Russia proper, the federal authorities had abandoned the project by 1986.
From 1960 to 1998, the sea's surface area shrank by 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world's fourth-largest lake with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,000 sq mi) and a volume of 1,100 km3 (260 cu mi). By 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 km2 (11,076 sq mi) and eighth largest. Its salinity increased, by 1990 it was at 376 g/L. (By comparison, seawater is typically 35 g/L, and the Dead Sea between 300 and 350 g/L.)
In 1987, the lake split into two separate bodies of water, the North Aral Sea (the Lesser Sea, or Small Aral Sea) and the South Aral Sea (the Greater Sea, or Large Aral Sea). In June 1991, Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union. Craig Murray, UK ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002, attributes the shrinkage of the Aral Sea in the 1990s to president Islam Karimov's cotton policy. The enormous irrigation system was massively wasteful, crop rotation was not used, and huge quantities of pesticides and fertilizer were applied. The runoff from the fields washed these chemicals into the shrinking sea, creating severe pollution and health problems. As demand for cotton increased the government applied more pesticides and fertilizer to the monoculture and depleted soil. Forced labor was used and profits siphoned off by the powerful and well-connected.
In 2003, the South Aral further divided into eastern and western basins. The waters in the deepest parts of the sea were saltier and not mixing with the top waters, so only the top of the sea was heated in the summer and it evaporated faster than had been predicted. A plan was announced to recover the North Aral Sea by building Dike Kokaral, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea.
In 2004, the sea's surface area was 17,160 km2 (6,630 sq mi), 25% of its original size, and a nearly fivefold increase in salinity had killed most of its flora and fauna. Dike Kokaral was completed in 2005 and, as of 2006, some recovery of sea level had been recorded.
Aral Sea from space (north at bottom), August 1985
Aral Sea from space (north at bottom), August 1997
Aral Sea from space (north at top), August 2009
Aral Sea in August 2010, with part of the eastern basin reflooded from heavy snowmelt.
Aral Sea completely loses its eastern lobe in August 2014
Aral Sea from space, August 2017
The Aral Sea is considered an example of ecosystem collapse. The ecosystems of the Aral Sea and the river deltas feeding into it have been nearly destroyed, not least because of the much higher salinity. The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals resulting from weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Due to the shrinking water source and worsening water and soil quality, pesticides were increasingly used from the 1960s to raise cotton yield, which further polluted the water with toxins such as DDTs. Furthermore, “PCB-compounds and heavy metals” from industrial pollution contaminated were added.
Due to the minimal amount of water left in the Aral sea, concentrations of these pollutants have risen drastically in remaining water and dry beds. These make for wind-borne toxic dust that spreads quite widely. People living in the lower parts of the river basins and former shore zones ingest pollutants through local drinking water and inhalation of contaminated dust. Furthermore, due to absorption by plants and livestock, toxins (many of which cannot be, without lasting damage, broken down then excreted by the liver/kidney system) have entered the food chain. As a result, the land mentioned is heavily polluted, where inhabitants are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. All of this has resulted in an unusually high fatality rate among vulnerable age groups: child mortality stood at 75 per 1,000 in 2009, when maternity death stood at 12 in every 1,000.
The dust storms also contribute to water shortages through salt deposition. The overuse of pesticides on crops to preserve yields has made this worse, such use far beyond health limits. Crops are destroyed where salt is deposited by the wind. Worst-affected fields when winds accrete such matter must be flushed with water four times per day to flush away salt and toxic matter. A study of 1998 showed the degradation allows few crops to grow besides fodder, which is what farmers in Kazakhstan are now deciding to seed. Landmark waters can moderate a region's climate by moistening, regulating thermal energy and peri-winter albedo effects. Loss of water in the Aral Sea has changed surface temperatures and wind patterns. This has led to a broader annual temperature range (about a 4˚ to 12˚C broadening) and more dust in storms locally and regionally.
The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, has been devastated. In the 1980s commercial harvests were becoming unsustainable, and by 1987 commercial harvest became nonexistent. Due to the declining sea levels, salinity levels became too high for the 20 native fish species to survive. The only fish that could survive the high-salinity levels was flounder. Due to the declining sea levels, former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards.
Aral, originally the main fishing port, is now several kilometres from the sea and has seen its population decline dramatically since the beginning of the crisis. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbour and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies kilometres from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry dusty land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.
The South Aral Sea remains too saline to host any species other than halotolerant organisms. The South Aral has been incapable of supporting fish since the late 1990s, when the flounder were killed by rising salinity levels.
Also destroyed is the muskrat-trapping industry in the deltas of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which used to yield as many as 500,000 pelts a year.
Aral Sea dust storm, March 2010
Abandoned ship near Aral, Kazakhstan
A former harbour in the city of Aral
Local Kazakh fisherman harvesting the day's catch
Women and children are the most vulnerable populations in this environmental health crisis due to the highly polluted and salinated water used for drinking and the dried seabed. Toxic chemicals associated with pesticide use have been found in blood and breast milk of mothers; specifically organochlorides, polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs), DDT compounds, and TCDD. These toxins can be, and often are, passed on to the children of these mothers resulting in low birthweight children and children with abnormalities. The rate of infants being born with abnormalities is five times higher in this region than in European countries. The Aral Sea region has 26% of its children born at low birthweight, which is two standard deviations away from a national study population gathered by the WHO.
Exposures to toxic chemicals from the dry seabed and polluted water have caused other health issues in women and children. Renal tubular dysfunction has become a large health concern in children in the Aral Sea region as it is showing extremely high prevalence rates. Renal tubular dysfunction can also be related to growth and developmental stunting. This, in conjunction with the already high rate of low birth weight children and children born with abnormalities, poses severe negative health effects and outcomes on children. These issues are compounded by the lack of research of maternal and child health effects caused by the demise of the Aral Sea. For example, only 26 English-language peer-reviewed articles and four reports on children's health were produced between 1994 and 2008. In addition, there is a lack of health infrastructure and resources in the Aral Sea region to combat the health issues that have arisen.
There is a lack of medication and equipment in many medical facilities, so health professionals do not have access to the necessary supplies to do their jobs in the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan regions. There is also meager development of a health information system that would allow for extensive research or surveillance of emerging health issues due to Aral sea issues. An absence of a primary care approach in the health systems of this region also hinders services and access that could prevent and treat issues stemming from the Aral Sea crisis, especially in women and children.
The impoverished are also particularly vulnerable to the environmental and health related effects of changes to the Aral Sea. These populations were most likely to reside downstream from the Basin and in former coastal communities. They were also among the first to be detrimentally affected, representing at least 4.4 million people in the region. Considered to have the worst health in this region, their plight was not helped when their fishery livelihoods vanished with the decreasing levels of water and loss of many aquatic species. Thus, those in poverty are entrenched in a vicious cycle.
Many different solutions to the problems have been suggested over the years, varying in feasibility and cost, including:
In January 1994, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan signed a deal to pledge 1% of their budgets to help the sea recover.
In March 2000, UNESCO presented their "Water-related vision for the Aral Sea basin for the year 2025".
By 2006, the World Bank's restoration projects, especially in the North Aral, were giving rise to some unexpected, tentative relief in what had been an extremely pessimistic picture.
Funded in part by the UNDP, implementations in Kazakhstan such as laser levelling and irrigation optimization using energy-efficient technologies has shown effectiveness.
The future of the Aral Sea and the responsibility for its survival are now in the hands of the five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. In 1994, they adopted the Aral Sea Basin Programme. The Programme's four objectives are:
The first phase of the plan effectively began with the first involvement from the World Bank in 1992, and was in operation until 1997. It was ineffectual for a number of reasons, but mainly because it was focused on improving directly the land around the Aral Sea, whilst not intervening in the water usage upstream. There was considerable concern amongst the Central Asian governments, which realised the importance of the Aral Sea in the ecosystem and the economy of Central Asia, and they were prepared to cooperate, but they found it difficult to implement the procedures of the plan.
This is due in part to a lack of co-operation among the affected people. The water flowing into the Aral Sea has long been considered an important commodity, and trade agreements have been made to supply the downstream communities with water in the spring and summer months for irrigation. In return, they supply the upstream countries with fuel during the winter, instead of storing water during the warm months for hydroelectric purposes in winter. However, very few legal obligations are binding these contracts, particularly on an international stage.
Phase Two of the Aral Sea Basin programme followed in 1998 and ran for five years. The main shortcomings of phase two were due to its lack of integration with the local communities involved. The scheme was drawn up by the World Bank, government representatives, and various technical experts, without consulting those who would be affected. An example of this was the public awareness initiatives, which were seen as propagandist attempts by people with little care or understanding of their situation. These failures have led to the introduction of a new plan, funded by a number of institutions, including the five countries involved and the World Bank.
In 1997, a new plan was conceived which would continue with the previous restoration efforts of the Aral Sea. The main aims of this phase are to improve the irrigation systems currently in place, whilst targeting water management at a local level. The largest project in this phase is the North Aral Sea Project, a direct effort to recover the northern region of the Aral Sea. The North Aral Sea Project's main initiative is the construction of a dam across the Berg Strait, a deep channel which connects the North Aral Sea to the South Aral Sea. The Kok-Aral Dam is 13 kilometres (8 miles) long and has capacity for over 29 cubic kilometres of water to be stored in the North Aral Sea, whilst allowing excess to overflow into the South Aral Sea.
On 6 October 2002, the Heads of States met again to revise the ASBP program. ASBP-2 was in place from 2003 to 2010. The main purpose of the ASBP-2 was to set up projects that covered a vast amount of environmental, socioeconomic and water management issues. The ASBP-2 was financed by organization such as the UNDP, World Bank, USAID, Asian Development Bank, and the governments of Switzerland, Japan, Finland, Norway and others. Over 2 billion US Dollars was provided by the IFAS country members to the program.
On 28 April 2009, the Head of States came together with the Interstate commission for Water Coordination, Interstate Commission for Sustainable Development and National Experts and donors to develop the ASBP-3. This Program was in effect from 2011- 2015. The main purpose of the ASBP-3 was to improve the environmental and socio-economic situation of the Aral Sea Basin. The four program prioritizes were:
Direction One's main purpose is to propose program that focus on addressing transboundary water resources management, establishment of monitoring systems and addressing safety concerns in water facilities. Examples of programs that have been proposed include:
Directions two's main focus is on addressing the issues related to environmental protection and improvement of the environment. Areas of interest include:
Direction three looks to address socio-economic issues by focusing on education and public health, improving unemployment rates, improving water systems, increasing sustainable development and improving living conditions. The expected outputs are:
Direction Four aims to address issues related to institutional development and the development of policies and strategies that relate to sustainable development and public awareness. Expected outputs include:
Work is being done to restore in part the North Aral Sea. Irrigation works on the Syr Darya have been repaired and improved to increase its water flow, and in October 2003, the Kazakh government announced a plan to build Dike Kokaral, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea. Work on this dam was completed in August 2005; since then, the water level of the North Aral has risen, and its salinity has decreased. As of 2006[update], some recovery of sea level has been recorded, sooner than expected. "The dam has caused the small Aral's sea level to rise swiftly to 38 m (125 ft), from a low of less than 30 m (98 ft), with 42 m (138 ft) considered the level of viability."
Economically significant stocks of fish have returned, and observers who had written off the North Aral Sea as an environmental disaster were surprised by unexpected reports that, in 2006, its returning waters were already partly reviving the fishing industry and producing catches for export as far as Ukraine. The improvements to the fishing industry were largely due to the drop in the average salinity of the sea from 30 grams to 8 grams per liter; this drop in salinity prompted the return of almost 24 freshwater species. The restoration also reportedly gave rise to long-absent rain clouds and possible microclimate changes, bringing tentative hope to an agricultural sector swallowed by a regional dustbowl, and some expansion of the shrunken sea.
"The sea, which had receded almost 100 km (62 mi) south of the port-city of Aralsk, is now a mere 25 km (16 mi) away." The Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated that "The North Aral Sea's surface increased from 2,550 square kilometers (980 sq mi) in 2003 to 3,300 square kilometers (1,300 sq mi) in 2008. The sea's depth increased from 30 meters (98 ft) in 2003 to 42 meters (138 ft) in 2008." Now, a second dam is to be built based on a World Bank loan to Kazakhstan, with the start of construction initially slated for 2009 and postponed to 2011, to further expand the shrunken Northern Aral,[failed verification] eventually reducing the distance to Aralsk to only 6 km (3.7 mi). Then, it was planned to build a canal spanning the last 6 km, to reconnect the withered former port of Aralsk to the sea.
The South Aral Sea, half of which lies in Uzbekistan, was abandoned to its fate. Most of Uzbekistan's part of the Aral Sea is completely shriveled up. Only excess water from the North Aral Sea is periodically allowed to flow into the largely dried-up South Aral Sea through a sluice in the dyke. Discussions had been held on recreating a channel between the somewhat improved North and the desiccated South, along with uncertain wetland restoration plans throughout the region, but political will is lacking. Unlike Kazakhstan, which has partially revived its part of the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan shows no signs in abandoning the Amu Darya river to irrigate their cotton, and is moving toward oil exploration in the drying South Aral seabed.
Attempts to mitigate the effects of desertification include planting vegetation in the newly exposed seabed; however, intermittent flooding of the eastern basin is likely to prove problematic for any development. Redirecting what little flow there is from the Amu Darya to the western basin may salvage fisheries there while relieving the flooding of the eastern basin.
The Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia (ICWC) was formed on 18 February 1992 to formally unite Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the hopes of solving environmental, as well as socioeconomic problems in the Aral Sea region. The River Basin Organizations (the BVOs) of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers were institutions called upon by the ICWC to help manage water resources. According to the ICWC, the main objectives of the body are:
The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) was developed on 23 March 1993, by the ICWC to raise funds for the projects under Aral Sea Basin programmes. The IFAS was meant to finance programmes to save the sea and improve on environmental issues associated with the basin's drying. This programme has had some success with joint summits of the countries involved and finding funding from the World Bank to implement projects; however, it faces many challenges, such as enforcement and slowing progress.
Vozrozhdeniya (Russian for rebirth) Island is a former island of the Aral Sea or South Aral Sea. Due to the ongoing shrinkage of the Aral, it became first a peninsula in mid-2001 and finally part of the mainland. Other islands like Kokaral and Barsa-Kelmes shared a similar fate. Since the disappearance of the Southeast Aral in 2008, Vozrozhdeniya Island effectively no longer exists as a distinct geographical feature. The area is now shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In 1948, a top-secret Soviet bioweapons laboratory was established on the island, in the centre of the Aral Sea which is now disputed territory between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The exact history, functions and current status of this facility are still unclear, but bio-agents tested there included Bacillus anthracis, Coxiella burnetii, Francisella tularensis, Brucella suis, Rickettsia prowazekii, Variola major (smallpox), Yersinia pestis, botulinum toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus.
In 1971, weaponized smallpox from the island reached a nearby ship, which then allowed the virus to spread to the city of Aral. Ten people there were infected, of whom three died, and a massive vaccination effort involving 50,000 inhabitants ensued (see Aral smallpox incident). The bioweapons base was abandoned in 1992 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union the previous year. Scientific expeditions proved this had been a site for production, testing and later dumping of pathogenic weapons. In 2002, through a project organized by the United States and with Uzbekistan's assistance, 10 anthrax burial sites were decontaminated. According to the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Infections, all burial sites of anthrax were decontaminated.
Ergash Shaismatov, the deputy prime minister of Uzbekistan, announced on 30 August 2006, that the Uzbek government and an international consortium consisting of state-run Uzbekneftegaz, LUKoil Overseas, Petronas, Korea National Oil Corporation, and China National Petroleum Corporation signed a production-sharing agreement to explore and develop oil and gas fields in the Aral Sea, saying, "The Aral Sea is largely unknown, but it holds a lot of promise in terms of finding oil and gas. There is risk, of course, but we believe in the success of this unique project." The consortium was created in September 2005.
As of 1 June 2010, 500,000 cubic meters of gas had been extracted, from 3 km down.
The plight of the Aral coast was portrayed in the 1989 film Psy ("Stray Dogs") by Soviet director Dmitri Svetozarov. The film was shot on location in an actual ghost town located near the Aral Sea, showing scenes of abandoned buildings and scattered vessels.
In 2000, the MirrorMundo foundation produced a documentary film called Delta Blues about the problems arising from the drying up of the sea.
In June 2007, BBC World broadcast a documentary called Back From the Brink? made by Borna Alikhani and Guy Creasey, which showed some of the changes in the region since the introduction of the Aklak Dam.
Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov's 2012 movie Waiting for the Sea deals with the impacts on people's life in a fishing town at the shore of the Aral Sea.
In 2012 Christoph Pasour and Alfred Diebold produced an 85-minute film with the title "From the glaciers to the Aral Sea", which shows the water management system in the Aral Sea basin and in particular the situation around the Aral Sea. The film was first screened at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France, in 2012 and is now available on the website: www.waterunites-ca.org and on Alfred Diebold's YouTube channel: waterunitesca.
In October 2013, Al Jazeera produced a documentary film called People of The Lake, directed by Ensar Altay, describing the current situation.
In 2014, director Po Powell shot much of the footage for the Pink Floyd single "Louder than Words" video near the remains of the Aral Sea on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In October 2018, the BBC produced a programme called Fashion's Dirty Secrets, a large part of which shows the extent of the shrinking Aral and its consequences, together with maybe a little glimmer of hope.