Why did the Aral Sea go from being one of the largest lakes in the world to being a salty puddle?
The Aral sea sits between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Most people today haven’t even heard of it. What was a 68,000 square kilometer sea, and thriving fishing industry, is now a sea that is 10 % of the original size, too salty and polluted to support fish. In fact one of the largest seas in the world, is now considered to be three lakes.
NASA Photos of the Aral sea, from Wikimedia
This inland sea of many lakes was a popular resort destination for family vacations, and recreation. This used to be a sea thriving with fish. There used to be marshes teaming with wildlife along some shores, sandy beaches on others. In fact the Aral Sea, and surrounding area was so teaming with life it was often compared to many places in Africa for terms of biodiversity. When the sea began to die, people, no longer able to make their livelihood on the fisheries, lost their homes, their ways of life, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
The shoreline is now up to 150 kilometers from where it once was in some areas, the depth has dropped by about 17 meters, and climate change has been reported.
Aralsk Harbor, once a common fishing harbor, now littered with dead vessels. Photo from Wikimedia
To make a sea disappear you simply have to stop giving it water.
Two rivers used to flow into the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, bringing with them as much water as the Nile carries. Plans for an intensive agriculture system were about to change all this. The Aral seas road to obscurity began in the 1960’s when water was diverted to irrigate farm land. Cotton production was the name of the game. Millions of liters of water which would normally replenish the sea were being used to grow crops in the surrounding desert regions. Today the two rivers are often so drained they are completely dry by the time they get to the Aral Sea.
Of all the crops grown, grain, melons, and so forth, the largest industry was cotton production. The demand for cotton was high, not only with the area, but for exportation purposes too. It was referred to as “white gold”.