The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was the forth largest lake in the world in the 1973. Covering 66,900 square kilometers (26,000 square miles) and measuring 400 kilometers from north to south and 280 kilometers for east to west, it was once as large as West Virginia and was larger than each of the Great Lakes save Superior, with more water than Lake Erie and Lake Huron combined. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, February 1990;

Millions of years ago the Aral Sea, Black Sea, and Caspian Sea were one part of a massive inland sea. Up until the 1970s, the Aral Sea was once full of clear water and was teaming with fish. There were good swimming beaches. Regular ferries crossed it from north to south. A variety of animals could be found in the forest along the shores and wetlands of Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya delta.

But things are much different now. The victim of a Soviet era water diversion project in Central Asia, the Aral Sea now holds less than 10 percent of its original water volume.

Jeremy Berlin of National Geographic wrote: “ Seen from a satellite, today’s Aral Sea is but a cluster of green globs. The brown, beige, and white? Some 3,240 square miles of dirt, dust, and salt—a toxic mess blown by sandstorms and tied to local health problems and climate changes. In 1960 this was an inland sea the size of Ireland. But heedless river diversion—for irrigation to wrest cotton and rice from the Central Asian desert—and evaporation have shriveled it by 90 percent. Since 2005 a World Bank–funded dam has revived the northernmost lake’s fish and fishing industry.”

Book: “The Devil and the Disappearing Sea” by Rob Ferguson

Early History of the Aral Sea

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “The Aral Sea straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and for thousands of years was fed by two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Having no outflow, the sea’s water level was maintained through a natural balance between inflow and evaporation. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 \+/]

“When Alexander the Great conquered this territory in the fourth century B.C., these rivers already had a long history of providing lifeblood to Central Asia. For centuries the Aral Sea and its vast deltas sustained an archipelago of settlements along the Silk Road that connected China to Europe. These ancient populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other ethnicities prospered as farmers, fishermen, herders, merchants, and craftsmen. \+/

Eve Conant wrote in Discover magazine: Four decades ago, the Aral Sea offered a constant supply of fish. Two dozen species thrived in its waters, including caviar-rich sturgeon, pike perch, and silver carp, known locally as fat tongue. The sea spread over more than 26,000 square miles, and ships could travel 250 miles from the northern port of Aralsk, in Kazakhstan, to the southern harbor of Muynak in Uzbekistan. [Source: Eve Conant, Discover, September 2006 |=|]

“For thousands of years, people have lived in the Aral Sea basin, which served as an oasis on the Silk Road, the trading route that linked China to Europe. "Three thousand years ago, this was an agricultural region," says Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea expert and geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University. "You'd have seen wooden irrigation canals all along the Amu Darya." Even in 1558, Anthony Jenkinson, an envoy for Queen Elizabeth I, foresaw trouble: "In short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water."

The Aral Sea has a history of shrinking. According to 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:”the great Blue Sea of Central Asia...occupies but a small portion of its former extent. It fills a shallow depression which is drying up with astonishing rapidity...large parts of it have dried up since the Russians took possession of it shores...Former rivers are channels. The main arteries of prosperous regions, have now disappeared.” It also described shells from the lake 200 feet above the sea’s level.

Later History of the Aral Sea

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. became part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations. But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert.” [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 \+/]

Soviet-sponsored irrigation projects, begun in the 1950s, diverted water from two rivers that fed the sea: the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.“Up until the early 1960s the system was fairly stable,” explained Micklin. “Micklin spent his career studying water management issues in the former Soviet Union and made about 25 trips to Central Asia, starting in the early 1980s. Over the years he watched the Aral Sea’s demise firsthand. “When they added even more irrigation canals in the 1960s, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “Suddenly the system was no longer sustainable. They knew what they were doing, but what they didn’t realize was the full range of the ecological consequences—and the rapidity with which the sea would vanish.” \+/

Eve Conant wrote in Discover magazine: Soviet planners “diverted much of the rivers' flow to water fields of rice and cotton in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and in farther-flung Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The irrigation system was so leaky that many canals lost more than 50 percent of the diverted river water en route to the fields, which cut the amount flowing into the sea. By the 1970s, everyone could see that something had gone terribly wrong. "The sea was dying in front of my eyes," remembers fishery director Agilbek Aimbetov. "We survived on enthusiasm alone," he says, using a popular Soviet-era euphemism for working for little or no pay. [Source: Eve Conant, Discover, September 2006 |=|]

“By 1987 the Aral’s water level had dropped drastically, splitting it into two bodies of water: a northern sea, which lies in Kazakhstan, and a larger southern sea lying within Karakalpakstan. In 2002 the southern sea got so low that it too split into separate eastern and western seas.” In July 2014 the eastern sea dried up entirely. When the sea was healthy and fishermen plied its fertile waters, moisture evaporated off the lake each day. “Now instead of water vapor in the atmosphere, we have toxic dust,” says Kamalov. \+/

“The saddest and most frustrating thing about the tragedy of the Aral Sea is that the Soviet officials at the Ministry of Water who designed the irrigation canals knew full well that they were dooming the Aral,” Kamalov says. From the 1920s through the 1960s, water officials often cited the work of Russia’s most famous climatologist, Aleksandr Voeikov (1842-1916), who once referred to the Aral Sea as a “useless evaporator” and a “mistake of nature.” Bluntly put, the Soviet wisdom of the day contended that crops were more valuable than fish.” \+/

Aral Sea and Irrigation

The main culprit behind the drying up of the Aral Sea has been irrigation projects in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and to a lesser degree Kazakhstan used mainly used to nourish millions of acres of cotton fields (90 percent of the former Soviet Union's production). The water from these projects was supplied by Central Asia's two largest rivers—the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which have traditionally flowed into the Aral Sea, supplying it with the vast majority of its water. Extremely low efficiency of irrigation systems in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan caused enormous overdrafts on these rivers.

As part of their massive cotton-growing, irrigation scheme, the Soviets built 32,000 kilometers of canals, 45 dams and more than 80 reservoirs to irrigate more than 4 million hectares of new crops. An area of desert and dry steppes was turned into one of the largest cotton-growing areas in the world. The waters of the Amu river began to flow into a canal, the world's longest, in 1956. At first there were no problems. Cotton production increasedd on around 50,000 square kilometers of newly irrigated land and the Aral Sea seemed unaffected.

In the 1960s the delicate equilibrium between the inflow of water and evaporation from the sea was thrown out of kilter. More land was brought under cultivation and the new irrigation was wasteful and inefficient. Water drained from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya doubled but cotton production only increased by 20 percent.

Much of the water was lost due to waste. The canals were not lined or covered. Much of the water evaporated or drained into the soil before it reached the crops. What is even worse is that cotton-growing policy was launched about the same time synthetic fibers began hitting world markets. Cotton production never brought in as much money as it was supposed to most of it ended in Moscow not Central Asia.

In some places such as around the village Dzhalagash in Kazakhstan rice was grown in areas that receives only 15 centimeters of rain a year. More than 2.8 billion liters of water—enough to fill 13,000 Olympic-size swimming pools—was necessary to supply water for 100 hectares of rice paddies. The situation exist because the water was ludicrously cheap—only 65 center per swimming pool. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan each produced almost 65,000 hectares of rice.

The Kara-kum Canal is the world's longest irrigation canal. It stretches 1,350 kilometers (745 miles) from Haun-Khan to Ashkhabad and brings water from the Amu-Darya to the inhabited areas in southern Turkmenistan. Draining the Amu-Darya, it runs most of the length of Turkmenistan and is used to supply water for cotton farms. It has contributed to large cotton harvests and the shrinking of the Aral Sea. The canal leaks a lot of the water it carries and is badly in need of reconstruction. From the air its looks like a thin ribbon fringed by kilometers-wide bands of weeds. The Turkmenistan government admits that 28 percent of the water disappears before it reaches it destination. Scientist think the figure is close to 60 percent.

Consequences of Irrigation on the Aral Sea

While irrigation doubled cotton production it drained 55 million cubic kilometers of water a year, claiming three quarters of the flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. With so much water diverted the rivers were only trickles when they arrived at the Aral Sea. Unable to counteract evaporation the lake has simply been getting smaller and smaller.

Soviet authorities knew what was going on but doing nothing to stop pit. When they designed the irrigation scheme they expected the lake to dry up. In 1987, a Soviet planner said, "Let the Aral Sea die beautiful death."

Initially the irrigation boosted agricultural productivity. But later over-watering and leaks left some farmland to salty to support crops and the use and reuse of water made the water saltier and loaded it with pesticides and sewage. By some estimates irrigation of the Aral Sea has caused agricultural productivity in Central Asia to decline by one quarter. Yet demand for water exceed the flow of the two rivers that flow into the Aral Sea by more than 25 percent.

The inefficient use of water now means that as the Aral Sea shrinks so to does the land used by farmers. One farmer who talked to the New York Times said that his entire crop — grown on 32 hectares of state-owned farmland that he oversaw — was lost in 2000 because of a lack of water. In 2001 he grew only four hectares of cotton. In 2002 he raised six hectares of cotton and sunflowers.

Towns on the Aral Sea

People living in the towns around the Aral Sea—mainly the Karakalpak—have traditionally depended on it for water, fish and work. Muynak in Uzbekistan was once a large fishing center with 58,000 people. Once there were 10,000 fisherman working there, hauling in pike, perch and bream as "fat as piglets" from the Aral. The town produced 3 percent of the Soviet Union's annual catch. By 1980, the river at Munyuk dried up to a trickle. The last fishing boat set out in May 1983 and caught only one fish. Now the water is 50 miles away.

Muynak’s population had shrunk to about 25,000 in the 1990s. In attempt to keep Muynak's fish processing plant going fish were shipped in from 2,800 kilometers miles away from the Arctic Ocean. Now it’s a depressing, impoverished eyesore, many kilometers from the shore of the Aral Sea. Many of the people that used to live here have left. Many of those that remain have health problems. The main tourist sights are the beached ships that lie near the gas storage facility about three kilometers outside of town. Muynak has an Aral Sea museum.In glass jars you can see pickled versions of the fish that once lived in the sea as well as animals like fox, wolves and badgers that inhabited its wooded shores. For all intents and purposes reaching the Aral Sea is impossible. It can only be approached by foot. It is very difficult, even dangerous, to try to reach on your own. On the drive between Nukus and Muynak you can see fields damaged by salinization from irrigation.

Aralsk was once a pretty Kazakh fishing town accounted for 10 percent of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch. People remember walking along the promenade and swimming in the sea after school. Now the shore is 60 miles away and the abandoned shipbuilding docks seem like bad jokes. It has the highest unemployment rates in Kazakhstan. A number of beached ships can be seen town of Dzhambu, 50 kilometers away. The lake near Aralask is getting larger due to the construction of a dam that diverts water to north lake. See Kazakhstan

Visiting the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea is a drainless, saline lake in Central Asia, in the territory of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Everyone knows about the tragedy of the Aral Sea. It was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Up to the 1960s. ships sailed around the Aral Sea, and 34 species of fish lived in the water. Today it is hard to believe, since the Aral is divided into two isolated reservoirs — the Northern (Small) and the Southern (Large) Aral Sea.

Today, to get to the water, you need to cover about 200 kilometers along the bottom of the Aral Sea or the newly-formed Aralkum desert. At the water’s edge, clayey silt goes three meters deep. It is believed that this clay has healing properties. The seashore is covered with lots of shells. The sea is turquoise in color and seems like a mirage, surrounded by endless desert.

The water in the Aral Sea is salty, as in the Dead Sea. It is necessary to swim in the sea with care so that the water does not get into the eyes.


Muynak (180 kilometers north of Nukus) is a town with q,350 people that once a busy fishing center on the Aral Sea. Now it’s a depressing, impoverished eyesore, 40 kilometers from the shore of the Aral Sea. Many of the people that used to live here have left. Many of those that remain have health problems. The main tourist sights are the beached ships that lie near the gas storage facility about three kilometers outside of town.

Muynak is the personification of the tragedy of the Aral Sea. After received city status city in 1963, it grew to house 100,000 inhabitants. In the 1980s a memorial obelisk was installed in the center of Muynak, from which you could see the waters of the Aral Sea. Now all you can only see sands from here.

Muynak has an Aral Sea museum. On clear days you can sometimes make out the shore. In glass jars at the museum you can see pickled versions of the fish that once lived in the sea as well as animals like foxes, wolves and badgers that inhabited its wooded shores. For all intents and purposes reaching the Aral Sea is impossible. It can only be approached by foot. It is very difficult, even dangerous, to try to reach on your own. On the drive between Nukus and Muynak you can see fields damaged by salinization from irrigation.

Muynak was a rich port island in the Amu Darya river and a gateway into Uzbekistan. Ships from Kazakhstan o the northern Aral Sea came in with cargos of fuel, fish and food, and left with bales of cotton. But those days are in the distant past now. It is interesting that even after the Aral tragedy in the region, nature seems to help people — a couple of kilometers from the city formed a freshwater lake, which solved the problem for the local population with drinking water.

Ship Graveyard of Muynak is all that remains of the once mighty fishing fleet Muynak. Here for several kilometers you can see the remains of ships and barges. Over the years it has attracted filmmakers and photographers. It has also become popular among tourists that in 2017 a yurt camp was set for travelers. In 2019 an electronuc music festival was held here.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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