Located in the deserts of the South-central Soviet Union, the Aral Sea was once the world’s 4th largest freshwater lake, with an original surface area of 26,000 square miles (67,000 km2). It was once surrounded with prosperous towns that supported 40,000 jobs, a successful fishery, and a successful muskrat pelt industry. The Aral Sea was originally fed by two strong rivers of Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya[sc:1].
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided that it would create a major project to irrigate the land surrounding the Aral Sea from the Amau Darya and the Syr Darya rivers that fed into it to produce fields of cotton and wheat in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The project was huge, consisting of a network of 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and more than 80 reservoirs. Unfortunately, this great project was very inefficient and leaky, and it led to the unsustainable draining of the Aral Sea basin. The eastern lobe of the sea completely dried up, and the Sea itself was reduced to only a few smaller lakes that essentially equaled one-tenth of the volume of the original lake. The remaining water also had a much higher salinity because there was now a high evaporation rate present due to the dry conditions[sc:1].
The negative impacts
There were many negative impacts that occurred due to the drying up of the Aral Sea, to both the local environment and the local communities, including[sc:1][sc:comma][sc:2][sc:comma][sc:3]:
- The death of millions of fish and the decimation of native species populations, along with the commercial fisheries that depended on them.
- An exodus of the local communities who could no longer sustain a livelihood from the local resources.
- The recession of the lake’s coastline miles from the towns that surrounded it.
- Dust storms that contained high amounts of sulfate salts left over from the Sea’s evaporation, as well as residues from industrial agriculture and weapons testing that had been occurring in the area. The toxic salts in the bottom of the lake and the lack of nutrients in the freshwater have proven to be a challenge to natural and artificial revegetation efforts.
- A deterioration of the deltaic ecosystems that depended upon the flow of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. These deltaic ecosystems once supported a richness of flora and fauna, as well as food for livestock, a place for commercial fish to spawn, and provided a place to hunt and trap for local communities and for commercial purposes.
- The disappearance of many native plant communities.
- Deterioration of habitat for 173 species of local deltaic fauna, which included muskrat, wild boar, deer, jackal, many species of birds, and some tigers.
- Salinization and pollution of the groundwater that served as a source of drinking water for local people groups. This pollution led to an increase in intestinal illness, increase in infant mortality rates and developmental problems, diarrheal disease and other waterborne diseases, TB and respiratory disease, malnutrition and anaemia, liver and kidney diseases, liver and throat cancer for the local populations, as well as an increase in rodent problems.
- Sadly, the desiccation of the Sea also led to desert animals that died from drinking the increased mineral content of the Aral Sea waters.
- The local economy suffered severe losses from damages to agriculture, fisheries, hunting and trapping, river and sea transport, and living and working conditions.
After realizing the severe ecological and human impacts of the disaster of the desiccation of the Aral Sea, the World Bank coordinated a 85 million dollar project with Kazakhstan to rebuild many miles of the the irrigation canals as well as building an efficiently working dam at the southern border along the Northern basin of the lake using up-to-date technologies. The canals were improved beginning in 2001, and the dam was finished in 2005.
This restoration project resulted in an overall improvement in the efficiency of irrigation of the Syr Darya river, and it has restored some of the water flow to that river, and thus also a flow of water into the Aral Sea itself. Overall, there has been an increase of 793,000 m3 of water flowing into the Aral Sea, helping the local flora and fauna and local communities to rebound somewhat, including a flourishing of some fish species, and a re-establishment of fleas, which helped to restore a local food chain, including Asian foxes, wild donkeys, and other mammals[sc:4].
While this restoration project will never completely restore the entire inflow back into the Aral Sea and the depollution work continues, it will help to bring back many of the local flora and fauna, as well as giving real hope for re-establishment of a thriving and local economy around the Sea.