In one of the greatest ecological disasters of our time the Aral Sea has literally disappeared and vanished into thin, dry, desert air. Between 1973 and 1989—just 16 years—the Aral Sea lost a volume of water equivalent to one and a half times that of Lake Eire. In 1987 it split into two lakes. In 2003 the southern part subdivided into eastern and western basins. The eastern part is expected to stabilize at 7,000 square meters and the western part will continue shrinking. By 2004, the fragments of the Aral Sea together made up what would be the world's eighth largest lake, and they were getting smaller. The lakes contained only 110 cubic kilometers of water, compared to 1,000 cubic kilometers in the Aral Sea in the 1960.

Ilan Greenberg wrote in the New York Times: “The sea's 400-square-kilometer, or 155-square-mile, retreat from its original shoreline is frequently invoked as one of the 20th century's more jaw- dropping ecological catastrophes, a consequence of the Soviet-era policy of diverting the Aral's two main tributary rivers into canals to irrigate millions of cotton plants across Central Asia. Without water, the sea became a mineral stew that unleashed disease and poverty onto the hundreds of villages and cities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that once lived off its bounty. The sea even split into two, creating the small Aral and the large Aral. [Source: Ilan Greenberg The New York Times, April 7, 2006 *^*]

The Aral Sea's surface is less than half its former size, its volume has been reduced by three-quarters and shores have receded by as much as 200 kilometers. When the sea was divided into two shallow bodies the northern section was named the "little Aral Sea"; the larger southern section was called the “big Aral Sea”. Now the remains of Aral Sea consists of four fragmented lake pieces. The exposed sea bed is larger than the Netherlands. Boats rust and goats feed on bushes 100 kilometers from the former shore. If it continues to shrink at its current rate scientists believe it will stabilize at about a third of its size or completely dry out in 2030.

“I doubt if there has been an environmental problem of this magnitude," said a leading authority on Aral Sea, "Certainly as a regional problem affecting 35 million people, it is unprecedented." In June 2004, the United Nations released a report that warned that the Aral Sea could dry up completely unless appropriate measures were taken to save it. A study found that at that point the lake was receiving only a tenth of eater that once did.

Jim Heintz of Associated Press wrote: “Once the world's fourth-largest lake, the sea has shrunk by 90 percent since the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a Soviet project to boost cotton production in the arid region. The shrunken sea has ruined the once-robust fishing economy and left fishing trawlers stranded in sandy wastelands, leaning over as if they dropped from the air. The sea's evaporation has left layers of highly salted sand, which winds can carry as far away as Scandinavia and Japan, and which plague local people with health troubles.” [Source: Jim Heintz, Associated Press, June 4, 2010]

NASA Images Reveal Shocking Scale of Aral Sea Disaster

A series of NASA satellite images released in 2014 revealed the shocking decline of water levels in the Aral Sea. James Rogers of wrote: “NASA’s Terra satellite began capturing the images in 2000, when the Aral Sea was already a fraction of its 1960 size. “It shows the power of long-term satellite observation from space,” a NASA spokesman told [Source: James Rogers,, October 1, 2014 <*>]

“By 2000 the body of water had already separated into Northern and Southern Aral Seas, also known the Small and Large Seas. As the satellite image taken in 2000 shows, the Southern Sea was split into tenuously-connected eastern and western ‘lobes,’ or basins. Within 12 months, however, the southern part of the connection had been lost, and the shallower eastern basin began to quickly retreat over the subsequent years. Dry conditions in 2014 caused the basin to completely dry up for the first time in modern times, according to NASA. <*>

“As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed,” said NASA, in a statement accompanying the satellite images, adding that the increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. NASA also noted that the blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. “The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier,” it added. A dam built by Kazakhstan’s in 2005 was a last-ditch attempt to save parts of the lake, but was effectively “a death sentence” for the Southern Aral Sea, according to NASA.” <*>

History of the Death of the Aral Sea

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.

But what occurred under the Soviets went far beyond this. Peter Finn wrote in the Washington Post, “In the early 1960s, bureaucrats sitting 2,000 miles from the Aral Sea ordered that the amount of water diverted from the sea's two feeding rivers be dramatically increased to drive new production of that crop.Irrigated areas in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan jumped from 6.4 million acres to 15.9 million acres over two decades. By the time the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which together measure more than 2,000 miles, reached the Aral Sea, they were reduced to trickles that spilled, lost, into the spreading sand. Blistering summer heat evaporated almost as much water from the sea as the rivers historically discharged into it. [Source: Peter Finn, Washington Post, July 11, 2007 ***]

“As the size of the sea declined, its salinity spiked, killing off freshwater fish. Four indigenous species, including the small Aral Sea sturgeon, are now extinct. In 1975, for the first time, there was no fish catch at all in a sea that once was bountiful with sturgeon, carp, perch and barbel. 'This was a very rich village, but when the fish died the people left,' said Zhasan Kenzhenbayev, 38, pointing to abandoned homes in Tastupek. Near the village of Zhambul, the detritus of a failed policy is startlingly visible. Six rusted fishing trawlers sit on a parched desert of sand, salt, scrub and broken seashells, ghostly reminders that this wind-swept expanse was once the bed of a great inland sea. ***

“The village, sad and dusty, shimmers in the far distance, the water that once washed its edge now a mirage. Camels shade by the prows of the gutted boats - one of which sports faded lettering announcing that it was named the Alexei Leonov, after the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to walk in space, in 1965. The region withered as a large fish-processing plant in Aralsk, the main northern port, closed along with fish-receiving stations by the shore. Muynoq, the main southern port about 270 miles away in Uzbekistan, was left high and dry. Entire villages were abandoned as people fled the encroaching dust bowl. ***

“What had been the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, outranked only by the Caspian Sea and lakes Victoria and Superior, had been reduced to ninth-largest by 2001. 'We had dry soil, bad water, all our plants disappeared, we couldn't grow vegetables,' said Zhannat Makhambetova, 39, head of the Aral Tenizi Society, a local nongovernmental organization promoting fisheries. 'It was a tragedy for people. Changes happened in nature but also in people. They lost their hope for this region, and they concentrated on any chance to leave.' ***

“For those who stayed, the growing desert spelled a health disaster. Fierce dust storms kicked up not just sand and salt, but also chemicals and pesticides that had washed into the sea from intensive farming along the two rivers. Cancers, respiratory diseases, anemia, miscarriages, and kidney and liver diseases in the region soared, according to Kazakh statistics and local doctors.” ***

Consequences of the Death of the Aral Sea

The desiccation and salinization of the Aral Sea have caused extensive storms of salt and dust from the sea's dried bottom, wreaking havoc on the region's agriculture and ecosystems and on the population's health. Desertification has led to the large-scale loss of plant and animal life, loss of arable land, changed climatic conditions, depleted yields on the cultivated land that remains, and destruction of historical and cultural monuments. Every year, many tons of salts reportedly are carried as far as 800 kilometers away.Regional experts assert that salt and dust storms from the Aral Sea have raised the level of particulate matter in the earth's atmosphere by more than 5 percent, seriously affecting global climate change. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The loss of water from the Aral Sea has disrupted the climate of the region. It rains less than before and temperatures are more extreme in the summer and winter in western Uzbekistan, an area that needs all of the moisture and comfortable weather it can get. As water in the lake has disappeared the summers have become hotter and drier and the winters became longer and colder. Consequently the growing season is as much as two months shorter and the region is more susceptible to dust storms. Local climate change has also created droughts that make the lake disappear more which in turn makes the climate drier setting off a a destructive cycle that is difficult to reverse.

The changes in the Aral Sea have also had dramatic effects on the ecosystems in the area. Of the 178 species of animal life found in the inland sea in 1973 only 38 species survived in the early 2000s. In 1960 the lake supported 70 species of mammals and 319 species of bird. By 2003, there were only 32 species of mammals and 16 species of birds. Vozrozhdeniye Island — which contains the lethal remains of a Soviet anthrax weapons testing laboratory, most of which lies in Uzbekistani territory — has been now connected to the shore by shrinkage of the sea.

The Soviet planners who devised the scheme that caused the Aral Sea to dry up were aware of from the start what the consequences of their actions would be but deemed the cost worth it because of the amount agricultural land and cotton that would be created. Alexander Asarin, a member of the Russian State Hydro project Institute, told the New York Times, “It way part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody from a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

In the Ruins of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan

Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times, “ On a parched plain in Kazakhstan stand the shells of six cargo ships. Emaciated cattle lie in their shade. Camels stroll past. Still visible on a bow is the name of Alexei Leonov, a Soviet astronaut. There is no water in sight – just mirages shimmering in the heat. In the village of Zhambul, Satykul Ubaidulaev, an old fisherman, said the plain was once a bay in the Aral Sea. In 1978, as the sea dried up, the ships put into the bay for winter because they could no longer reach the port of Aralsk. They hoped spring would bring higher water. It never did. The Aral continued to shrivel. Its fish died. Windstorms whipped up toxic dust from the seabed. People were stricken by death, disease and poverty. They found tumours in their livestock’s livers. Mr Ubaidulaev left to work in a distant Soviet tractor factory. [Source: Martin Fletcher, The Times, June 23, 2007 <<<]

“An old channel and abandoned dredger record the town's desperate efforts to chase the receding sea. A sign reads: “The sea disappeared, but its song has not left our hearts.” Wistful murals in the town hall and at our Soviet-era hotel depict a harbour full of blue water and fishing boats with seagulls wheeling overhead. “Even now I cry when I go to where the port was,” said Babacha Kozhaeva, 85, who worked 28 years as a cargo ship’s cook. <<<

Eve Conant wrote in Discover magazine: “Rusting abandoned ships dot the sandy seabed. Some have been scavenged for scrap metal; the others provide shade for irritable herds of Bactrian camels. There are few other signs of life. When we reach the nearby village of Birlistik, which used to overlook a bay on the sea, we see that its mud-walled huts now face an insecticide-laced desert, filled with tumbleweeds and toxic shrubs, that stretches as far as the eye can see. [Source: Eve Conant, Discover, September 2006 |=|]

In the Ruins of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan

“This is what the end of the world looks like,” says Yusup Kamalov, sweeping his hand toward the scrub-covered desert in northern Uzbekistan. “If we ever have Armageddon, the people of Karakalpakstan are the only ones who will survive, because we are already living it.”Kamalov is a senior researcher in wind energy at the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. He’s also an environmental activist, chairing the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea and Amu Darya. His father was a renowned historian during the Soviet era, and his grandfather was the last elected khan, or leader, of the semiautonomous republic of Karakalpakstan before it became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the 1930s. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 \+/]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: “ From our perch atop this sandy bluff in northern Uzbekistan, the view could be of just about any desert—that is, if it weren’t for the mounds of seashells and the half dozen marooned fishing boats rusting into the sand. This spot was once the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Aral Sea...Behind us lies the town of Muynoq, formerly a thriving fishing village with a sprawling cannery that even as recently as the 1980s processed thousands of tons of fish annually. Fifty years ago the southern shore of the Aral was right where we stand; now it lies 55 miles away to the northwest. \+/

“Can you imagine,” says Kamalov, turning to me from the front seat of our Land Cruiser, “that 40 years ago the water was 30 meters deep [98 feet] right here.”Our driver points through the windshield to a thick brown cloud blowing across the desert. A minute ago there was nothing there; now I’m being told to quickly roll up my window. Seconds later we’re engulfed in noxious dust that quickly infiltrates the vehicle. The dust stings my eyes, and I can taste the heavy salt, which instantly makes me sick to my stomach.This whirlwind is but one of many ecological consequences that the Soviet planners didn’t predict. “The geochemists thought that as the sea dried, a hard crust of sodium chloride would form on the surface and there wouldn’t be salt storms,” Micklin said. “They were dead wrong.” \+/

“Near the shoreline the muddy sand is wet, like a beach with an ebbing tide. But the Aral doesn’t have a perceptible tide—what we’re seeing is the sea actually receding before our eyes. “Whatever you do, don’t stop,” yells Kamalov, as he plows through the knee-deep quicksand, wearing only his underwear. I plod along behind until the water reaches my knees. I try to swim, but my legs float up to the surface, making it impossible to kick. “Just lie on your back,” says Kamalov. I do, and the sensation is like that of lying on a pool floaty. My head rests on a water pillow. I hardly break the surface.” \+/

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. The 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.

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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