The Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is located in central Asia, with Kazakhstan north of it and Uzbekistan to the south of it. The Aral Sea Basin also includes the countries of Tijikstan, Kyrgstan and Turkmenistan. The sea is between the Karakum desert and the Kyzylkim desert. Aral means island in Kazak and used to be comprised of over 1100 islands. As the fourth largest “inland body of water”, the Aral Sea also flourished with fishing and trade.¹

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The changes in the Aral Sea since 1957. http://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/images/AralSeaChronology.jpg
Today the Aral Sea has shrunk to one fourth of its original surface area. Water levels have been falling two feet a year since 1960. The Aral Sea is no longer one sea and has been split into the “Large” Aral, and the “Small” Aral and is likely to split again. A sea which once thrived on the fishing industry has not been able to support aquatic life since 1970 due to its high levels of salt. Overall in less then fifty years the sea level has decreased by eighty feet and lost ninety percent of its volume. These dramatic changes have also changed the weather patterns of the region. During the peak of the Aral Sea the water helped to stabilize temperatures. As the Aral Sea has decreased the summers have become much hotter² with temperatures reaching one hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit¹, the winters much colder² with temperatures dropping to negative four degrees Fahrenheit,¹ and decreased the amount of precipitation received.¹

The question that arises is how did it get like this? The originally goal of the Soviets was to work on making the desert profitable especially in the cotton market. The river flow that went into the sea was rerouted to the agricultural fields and the Soviets were successful in their goal.² But things like drainage, inefficiency and waste were never considered. Once the problem was realized in 1960 it was too late. Starting in 1980 the sea received no water at all depending on how dry the year was.¹

The complication of the sea levels diminishing in the sea has sprouted other environmental problems. The agricultural practices that existed also worsened these problems today. Sandstorms occur about ten times a year¹ with over “forty three million metric tons of regional salt and dust is blown into the air annually.”² During these storms dust containing pesticides are moved around and spread. Karakalpakstan is most affected by these due to the direction the wind travels. The pesticides found in the dust are dichlorodiphenyl-trichlorethans, hexachloro-cyclohexane compounds, and toxaphene.¹ Due to the duststorms these chemicals have been also found in the food at levels three times higher then recommend. This has lead to high rates of birth defects, infan
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The separation of the Small Aral and the Large Aral. http://www.aviso.oceanobs.com/fileadmin/images/applications/hydrology/aral_sea_modis_2007_uk.jpg
t mortality, anemia, kidney disease, liver disease and drug resistant tuberculosis.²

From the storms the salt itself has damaged land which has affected farming and domestic animals. Another adverse effect on farming is the reduced growing season due to the climate change. As previously mentioned the summers have become hotter but they have also become shorter due to the decline of the sea. This makes growing seasons shorter which along with less precipitation in the area makes producing agricultural goods harder.¹ The salt also has spread and affected the drinkable water which affects people physically and also agriculturally.²

Although the outlook of the Aral Sea seems dreary there recently has been positive progress. The “Small” Aral has been closed off from the “Large” Aral by a dam that was put in place. This has helped to stabilize the “Small Aral.” The goal is to bring back some of the fishing that the area was previously known for.² The sea has grown by 1,000 square kilometers. People’s health is improving because clean water is being piped in and fish has been reintroduced into their diets. The climate is also improving which is making summers cooler with fewer sand storms and more precipitation. More precipitation and cooler weather in the summer allows for more grass to go to support livestock especially the swans, ducks and geese that have been coming back. President Nazarbayev of Kazakh has a goal to bring back the sea. Already fisher men have already started to come back thanks to phase one. A fish processing plant is at full power. Sturgeon and fingerlings have recently been put in the sea. Fiberglass fishing boats are being built in a new factory.³ These improvements show that change can be made in the Aral Sea area.

Another example of a declining sea source is the Dead Sea.

(1) Whish-Wilson, P.; Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health. 2002, 1(2), 29-34.
(2) Annin, P. The Great Lakes Water Wars, 1st ed.; Island Press: Washington, 2006.
(3) Fletcher, Martin. “The Return of the Sea.” The Times. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1975079.ece (8 Feb. 2009)