Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Aral Sea Disappears in a Cloud of Toxic Dust

The Aral Sea is located in the lowlands of Turan occupying land in the Republics of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. From ancient times it was known as an oasis. Traders, hunters, fishers, and merchants populated this fertile site littered with lagoons and shallow straits that characterised the Aral landscape. The word “aral” in Kazakh is translated “island”, over a thousand of which were scattered throughout this region which made up part of the Silk Road, the highway between Europe and Asia.

During the former Soviet Union's hay day of central planning a major project was undertaken to turn the Central Asian plain between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into the Soviet Union's own version of the Fertile Crescent by diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. At the time, early 1960s, the Aral Sea was the World's fourth largest lake.

From a report on NASA's Earth Observatory web site:

Beginning in the 1960s, farmers and state offices in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies. As recently as 1965, the Aral Sea received about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. Consequently, concentrations of salts and minerals began to rise in the shrinking body of water. That change in chemistry has led to staggering alterations in the lake's ecology, causing precipitous drops in the Aral Sea’s fish population.

The Aral Sea supported a thriving commercial fishing industry employing roughly 60,000 people in the early 1960s. By 1977, the fish harvest was reduced by 75 percent, and by the early 1980s the commercial fishing industry had been eliminated. The shrinking Aral Sea has also had a noticeable affect on the region's climate. The growing season there is now shorter, causing many farmers to switch from cotton to rice, which demands even more diverted water.

A secondary effect of the reduction in the Aral Sea’s overall size is the rapid exposure of the lake bed. Strong winds that blow across this part of Asia routinely pick up and deposit tens of thousands of tons of now exposed soil every year. This process has not only contributed to significant reduction in breathable air quality for nearby residents, but has also appreciably affected crop yields due to those heavily salt-laden particles falling on arable land.

It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded. For more information, see Philip P. Mickin, 1988, and The Aral Sea Crisis, Thompson, 2008.


Becca said...

Thank you for your comments! This is a great post. Have you seen that Planet Earth Diary on the Bactrian camels? It was quite an exciting chase and has some amazing and hilarious footage.

And I see you are the elusive novelist! :) That is exciting. Let us know when you are done, and we'll make it PCV staple-reading.

Richard Badalamente said...

Hi, Becca -- didn't see that video, although I have seen Planet Earth videos, and one was on the Bactrian (talk about "elusive"). I've actually completed the novel, but so far unsuccessful getting it published. Thinking of self-publishing it on Amazon.com Kindle. Do you have a Kindle? I got one for Xmas and love it. Would be great for PCVs.