The Aral Sea is located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and has been cited several times in historical documents from the Silk Route era. The region was occupied by desert nomadic tribes and the Sea was often used as a source of fishing. How, then, did it change from local water basin to desert-like status?
The answer is simple: human intervention.
When newscasters talk about climate change, the usual suspects are rising oceans, changing weather patterns and the growing problem of smog in large industrial cities like Beijing. What is not as often focused on is the phenomenon of places like the Aral Sea. It was once the world’s fourth largest inland water body spanning around 68,000 square kilometres. Now it is nearly a tenth of its former size.
As early as the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the Soviet Union diverted water from two main regional rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, so much so that the Aral Sea divided into smaller bodies of water. This was done in order to stimulate the production of cotton in Soviet satellite countries like Uzbekistan. The Soviet Union created canals and dams throughout the desert, in most cases, poorly - and not only diverted a large portion of water, but wasted many more tons of it.
Measuring this change amongst the sea not only comes from noting the difference in the Aral Sea’s surface area - which decreased 60 percent from 1960 to 1998 - but also from commentary on the ecosystem and livelihood for those who live there. There is no fishing industry that booms as it did in the early days of the Soviet Union. Due to weapons testing in the region and fertiliser run offs, the sea became so salty that even aquatic animals have difficulty surviving. Pollution also haunts the Aral Sea and has caused high rates of respiratory illnesses in the who live around the area.
Despite all this, the Aral Sea is making a revival. In 1994, regional powers Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan adopted the Aral Sea Basin Program to better understand and mitigate the effects of humans on the Aral Sea. Rehabilitation work continues through today with countries building the Dike Kokaral as recently as 2005 - which helps to balance the water levels in the North and South Aral Sea.
Satellite imagery photos taken by NASA show that all of these efforts have making an impact. The Aral Sea might be much smaller than it was in the 1960’s; however, there is evidence of growth in the eastern part of the South Aral Sea, whereas the it was completely dry in 2014. However, Philip Micklin, an expert from Western Michigan University cautioned against early optimism, “This year’s events do not signal a restoration of the eastern lobe as a permanent feature.”
In other words, even with the best human efforts to the contrary, long-term effects of bad climate policies can impact a country and its seas can and may never leave us. Still, there are signs of life in the Aral Sea region - from a higher diversity of fish and a burgeoning fishing population. One cannot say whether or not the Aral Sea region will regain a fraction of its former glory, but let’s hope it can make some strides towards fixing what happened in the past.
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