The Soviet Union, back in the day, had some grandiose ideas. Some would say that spirit is still alive, but that’s another story. In the 1950s and ’60s, no concern for the environment stood in the way of “progress” and the leaders of the country were determined to see the soil of central Asia blossom forth with an abundance of crops, principally cotton. A large area that included parts of present-day Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan needed water in order to produce that cornucopia, so an irrigation scheme that siphoned water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers was constructed.
The two rivers are fed by snowmelt and rain in mountains hundreds of miles to the southeast. Like the Nile, the rivers continue their journey through desert and open plains, but their destination is an internal basin known as the Aral Sea. It was a freshwater lake, actually, and only three others on Earth were bigger. The Aral Sea provided a fishing livelihood for towns around its shores and moderated the weather of the surrounding region. Its evaporation rate lent a vast supply of humidity and its waters helped charge artesian wells.
It probably seemed unthinkable that the diversions for agriculture could so greatly affect this sea, but by the ’70s it was clear that its level was dropping. Only half of the former water delivery was arriving by way of the heavily tapped rivers and the sea began to shrink faster and faster in the ’80s and ’90s. By 2000, the southern and northern parts of the sea were separated by land, and in the southern part, which was larger by area, an east-west split was also well underway. The larger easternmost lobe, being shallower, faded to almost nothing by 2009, and then reappeared weakly in the following years. But both the eastern and western parts of the southern lobe had their doom written as a permanent dam was constructed in 2005 in order to concentrate flow into the northern Aral Sea. This portion has stabilized and even grown, though it is only a fraction of sea’s former size. In 2014, the southeastern area went completely dry for the first time in modern times. The level of the sea has fluctuated greatly over the centuries due to drought and other broader changes in climate, but never before as a result of human engineering.
As the water continues to drop, its salinity increases. More land is then exposed, and it’s covered in these salts, as well as deposits of pesticides and fertilizers brought from farm runoff. Winds blow this nasty dust around, lowering air quality and depositing salts on formerly productive soil. It’s a scenario we in California have seen at the Salton Sea. And just like there, the number of species of fish and birds that can contend with the new harsher conditions is plummeting. The towns that once made their living from the sea have gone away, their fishing boats left high and dry, now miles from the shoreline. In a case of the vicious cycle, the loss of the Aral Sea’s waters has affected the weather enough to shorten the growing season. This has forced many former cotton farmers to turn to rice growing – a crop that requires even more water be drawn from the over-tapped rivers.
It’s an environmental nightmare, but the economies of the nations irrigated by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya depend heavily on the agriculture they produce. The Aral Sea is then a sacrifice zone for jobs and crops, but the long term effects of erasing a huge water body from the landscape may unfold for decades to come.