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What Caused the Aral Sea to Shrink

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”.

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  1. Karen N

    On December 7, 2008 at 8:56 am


    Very sad to see.

  2. Will Gray

    On December 7, 2008 at 10:00 am


    Wow! Great article. Sad, but true.

  3. Brenda Nelson

    On December 7, 2008 at 10:09 am


    I learned about this many years ago on a TV show I watched. I have long thought about writing about it, and when it came time for me to do so (now) I was sad to see that the sea is even smaller and little had really been done.

  4. Clay Hurtubise

    On December 7, 2008 at 11:27 am


    When I watch the news, I watch BBC America, and in the past they have reported on this. If you want good climate news, try BBC, then type in climate change. Scary.
    Check out the news that came out on the Colorado river this week, same story, different location.
    Thanks,
    Clay

  5. Jasin

    On December 7, 2008 at 1:38 pm


    Scary article, its bad how we do these things to our own home.

  6. Darla Smith

    On December 7, 2008 at 1:51 pm


    A very eye opening article.

  7. Hein Marais

    On December 7, 2008 at 2:47 pm


    WOW. This is very scary.

  8. shaun simpson

    On December 7, 2008 at 3:15 pm


    this is very worrying. great article though

  9. KM9999999

    On December 7, 2008 at 11:33 pm


    A very sad state of events.

  10. Gabriel Knight

    On December 8, 2008 at 1:22 am


    Good article, disturbing, but well written and very informative. Man just continues to destroy what nature has created. Sooner or later Mother Nature will strike back.

  11. sumind

    On December 8, 2008 at 2:53 pm


    good article , it rally calls the human soul

  12. Paula Mitchell Bentley

    On December 8, 2008 at 5:01 pm


    People really need to start looking beyond their front yards. Our planet is fragile and I believe strongly that we need to preserve and protect it for our children and grand children. We really need to stop buying whatever is cheapest and think about how things are made. Everyone can make a difference if only they would try.

  13. rishi

    On December 8, 2008 at 10:44 pm


    While that sea is shrinking the Caribbean(s) are rising. They have land appearing while in Trinidad land is vanishing. The Ocean has risen by as much as 10 feet in the past 8 years. The are you are describing if it has say,,, 3 days rain fall i guarantee the sea will be back, if it stays is another matter. Sad to see this happening but things change, the questions remain How much will it change ? Can we adapt to the change and survive?

  14. thepicmaster

    On December 9, 2008 at 12:26 am


    hiiiiiiiii
    its is true and very sad news..

  15. Bozsi Rose

    On December 9, 2008 at 5:39 am


    It’s always interesting when they find sea-life fossils on the tops of mountains.

  16. eddiego65

    On December 9, 2008 at 6:33 am


    Eye-opening article. Shocking to see a whole sea disappearing.

  17. total oblitiration

    On December 9, 2008 at 8:35 am


    the sad part is that all of this was done by humans, almost anything we touch gets ruined, just like all the other nature and wildlife that we humans killed. that’s a shame

  18. Epic Troll

    On December 9, 2008 at 1:58 pm


    Im sorry to inform you but global warming doesnt have much to do with this. This “sea” is actually a big lake. It has no connection to an ocean, as you can see in the picture there are no rivers leading to this lake. Mountains around this “sea” drain most of the rain. This means that this lake is getting no water. No wonder it is getting empty. THERE IS NO WATER TO FEED IT. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT. It’s just bound to happen to lakes like this. Theres no water around.

  19. Ben

    On December 9, 2008 at 2:39 pm


    Looking on Google earth there appears to be two small rivers to the east of the “sea”.

    Them commies sure know how to mess things up.

  20. sassybrat

    On December 9, 2008 at 2:42 pm


    this is nothing compared to what is coming…

  21. Dewan Golam Shafi Choudhury

    On December 9, 2008 at 3:30 pm


    it is soo sad! Well done and thank you for writing this article!

  22. Mark Bentley

    On December 9, 2008 at 4:15 pm


    It is always so sad and shocking to see how much damage we can do to the planet in a short time through simple carelessness.

  23. yep its me

    On December 9, 2008 at 4:56 pm


    it really is bad but in the U.S. us in louisiana have the most coastal erosion and its sad how much is being worn away every year

  24. Andrew

    On December 9, 2008 at 9:35 pm


    If you read the article viliux27 it states that this was a sea fed by rivers, the rivers were used for agriculture and it WAS our fault because we took away this sea’s water source. The article doesn’t claim that this was caused by global warming. This isn’t propaganda, this is fact. The Aral Sea is a well documented case, and it’s not something invented by environmentalist’s. Until people like you learn to accept the destruction we are causing, we won’t be able to reverse it. Its people like you who are ignorant and don’t listen to all the facts before you decide to disagree with something. I would imagine that you are a religious person as well; it requires the same type of ignorance to be religious.

  25. Nate

    On December 9, 2008 at 11:15 pm


    The reality of this atrocity is sadly too far away for the most of us. Unless people live in the area of effect, it is just a distant sadness. The only way for capitalism to make serious positive changes is to either convince the producers that it is in their best interest (financially) to be friendly, or to regulate forcibly their exploits with the Law.

    If we want anything to get done efficiently, the government has to step in.

  26. jfkberdan

    On December 10, 2008 at 8:30 am


    Very sad to see

  27. Anna Ski

    On December 10, 2008 at 9:26 am


    Sadly enough…., in Australia they want to start de-salinating sea water to substitute normal water. Alot of people are against it, and the above article is enough for me to join them too.

  28. Lily River

    On December 10, 2008 at 10:22 am


    Very insightful. Sometimes writing about what you know to open the eyes of another can be the most valuable of all literature.

  29. Brenda Nelson

    On December 10, 2008 at 11:24 am


    to viliux27 comment #18
    if you read the article you would have seen there are 2 rivers that feed this “Sea” and it is those rivers that are being diverted to get water for crops like cotton.
    nowhere did I state this is a Global Warming article – clearly it is not.

    the government there is to blame, but additionally our consumption of cotton (their # 1 export) is a major contributor too.

  30. krl from Chile

    On December 10, 2008 at 1:00 pm


    it’s sad.

  31. nobert soloria bermosa

    On December 10, 2008 at 4:52 pm


    interesting stuff that everybody should be aware of such occurrence,so sad

  32. Sotiris

    On December 10, 2008 at 5:36 pm


    so sad :(

  33. Ruby Hawk

    On December 10, 2008 at 7:36 pm


    If we don’t learn to live with less we will soon have no choice. We will have nothing left to conserve. A very informative article.

  34. zorman32

    On December 11, 2008 at 8:48 am


    It’s amazing to me how governments around the globe can do whatever they want to, and somehow it becomes and “American” problem to deal with. I’m sorry, but it’s NOT our fault, nobody labels the source of fibers in products, only the source of manufacture/export. While I agree that this is a terrible tragedy that should never have occurred in the first place, the finger pointing is totally off course…as usual. WHO approved the diversion? WHICH government is to blame? WHERE do we go to take part in the solution? These questions remaining unanswered reduce this article to mere whining, at least in my opinion. It should be further developed to be of any more than a mere tug at the heartstrings. Sorry, just my opinion, these types of articles do nothing more than create divisions among the innocent who are affected, they do nothing to solve anything. (and no, Andrew in comment #24, I’m NOT religious…that too is an ignorant and emotionalistic comment for you to have made)

  35. RagingHamster

    On December 11, 2008 at 10:21 am


    Our planet is NOT fragile. In fact, it was designed to adapt to pretty much any situation thrown at it, including meteors that may or may not have wiped out most of life on earth at one point.

  36. tim maguire

    On December 11, 2008 at 2:08 pm


    RagingHamster is right. The planet is NOT fragile. We, however, are. The planet was alive and well long before we got here and it will be alive and well long after we’re gone.

    Living an environmentally cautious life is necessary for our own benefit–not the earth’s. If we kill off most of what’s around us, yes, in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t matter much to the earth. Most of those things will die off sooner or later anyway and new things will grow in their place, as it always was, as it always will be. But our own lives will be poorer, drab, and less physically and psychically healthy.

    That’s why this stuff matters–because it hurts our own quality of life.

  37. Anthony M Jones

    On December 11, 2008 at 5:33 pm


    I always hate to see river go away like that. Makes me think of all the life that was once there.

  38. Julia

    On December 16, 2008 at 7:16 am


    How many of those fishermen that worked in the area’s fishing industry went into cotton and are now much more financially better off than they were fishing? Seriously people, it was an economic decision that helped these people. If they want to get their knickers in a wad over the destruction of their lake, let them. They can fix it or not. We have our own problems over here. Stop acting as though ‘those poor, ignorant Africans need our help’. How condescending of you.
    They can fix the problem if they care to. Why don’t you go try to educate our own homeless about the American economic system and how it is imperative to our upper-middle class survival that they go get a job and stick with it? That would be a much better focus of your bleeding heart.

  39. appush

    On December 17, 2008 at 8:08 am


    soooo sad…v humans r really goin 2 suffer one day….can’t something be done 2 restore the sea n the biodiversity??

  40. Brenda Nelson

    On December 17, 2008 at 4:19 pm


    to “Julia” comment #38
    your ignorance is showing..
    first this is NOT even in Africa!!.. secondly it was not something the people chose, the government chose it for them. third- I never refered to the people as “ignorant” you did!
    fourth – you assume everyone who is reading is an American, I can assure you I AM NOT!!!

    I think if you want to talk about educating Americans, you might want to start with yourself.
    Everyone has every right to be concerned about anything they want.

  41. PR Mace

    On December 18, 2008 at 12:22 am


    Well done informative article. It really made me think.

  42. Michael F

    On December 19, 2008 at 11:32 pm


    Interesting article. Julia # 38 is obviously American, and # 40 was a good rebuttal. While it is true she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, she did make one good point. Most people will care for the enviroment, unless it concerns themselves! What I mean by this statement is that many people actively destroy the enviroment then expect their neigbours to clean up the mess. The most enviromentaly destructive country in the world is the USA, yet one in four Americans call themselves an enviromentalist! As I understood Julia, she is saying who cares about this, so long as my upper middle class does not suffer. Lets educate the homeless, lest my class suffer. By the way Julia, if you are upper middle class in the USA, you are in the wealthiest 1% of the world. If you are that well off, can I ask what you have personally done to help the homeless? Have you ever volunteered at a homeless shelter? Being so rich (top 1%) how much of your income do you donate to helping the homeless? I work full time with the homeless, and a large percentage of them are unemployable due to psyciatric problems. Please do not be condesending to them. And the lake (sea) , for your info is as the first line of the article mentions is between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which was (is?) part of the USSR.

  43. David

    On December 23, 2008 at 6:25 pm


    It seems to me that the purpose of an article such as this (concise and well-written, by the way) is to highlight the harm that has been done as a warning that it can happen again.

    As to what we can do about it, one of the first steps is to increase the worldwide production of hemp fiber. Far more textile fiber can be produced per hectare (or acre) with hemp than cotton, and the same plants can also produce fiber for ropes, paper, biomass power generation and other products.

    Other steps include improved irrigation techniques (economic development project), government regulation of the common resource, bio- and phytoremediation of the polluted land and water, installation of desalination plants that produce salt and feed fresh water back into the lakes (economic development project), more responsible farming techniques that reduce chemical input and output, and education of the local population (in general, but focusing on ecology, sustainability and systems design). Much of that work must be done by or at the behest of the governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but western governments can certainly urge and fund such efforts.

    Oh, and Julia (#38), the extreme degree of unemployment in the area has been comprehensively documented by various sources, including National Geographic, the one that I remember at the moment. The fishing industry had been far more lucrative than any cotton, and a whole network of support industries simply disappeared when the fish died. Economic hardship inevitably resulted. Think about the logging towns when logging stops, or New Orleans if the Mississippi no longer went through that area. The Aral was the lifeblood, and it simply stopped flowing.

  44. DSand

    On January 2, 2009 at 10:54 pm


    http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&tab=wl
    89 map is looking more like the 2008 map. I guess all us talking about it helped.

  45. DSand

    On January 2, 2009 at 11:06 pm


    Dang that was quick, apparently this has happened to this sea many times before, having nothing to do with MAN. It was just natural for this body of water to dry up and than fill up.

    Don’t believe everything you read on the net.

    Even this. Just do your part!
    http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070409/full/news070409-8.html

    Northern Aral Sea recovering
    Kazakhstan plans second phase of project.

    Daemon Fairless

    Tools
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    The Aral Sea, whose disappearance counts as one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes, is making a modest recovery thanks to a series of water-management projects implemented by the World Bank and the government of Kazakhstan.

    While the waters of the Aral Sea — now a chain of brackish lakes along the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — continue to shrink, one portion, the northern Aral in Kazakhstan, has been steadily rising thanks to improved flood levees and dam construction.

    To read this story in full you will need to login or make a payment (see right).

  46. mya

    On January 14, 2009 at 9:23 am


    thi s cool

  47. JOhn Stosell

    On February 1, 2009 at 12:40 pm


    Truly heartbreaking indeed.

    RT
    http://www.internet-privacy.us.tc

  48. whateverbro

    On February 1, 2009 at 1:16 pm


    is there a resource where we can find out what brands use cotton from the area?

  49. Andrew

    On February 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm


    Go to Google Maps, search for the aral sea, and see what it looks like in 2009 – almost back to its original size. Is this article real?

  50. Ben

    On February 1, 2009 at 6:01 pm


    I like (sarcasm) how the only solution considered was to scrape together some spilt water along the canals and hope that would do something.

    Absolutely disgusting. Rural communities should all just die. They think like this the around the whole world.

  51. Wake up

    On February 1, 2009 at 10:45 pm


    Man can’t destroy nature – man is the nature. Sea is just a plunk of water, nothing more, nothing less, only the scale is bigger. Water did not get annihilated, it was just relocated – to give life to cotton plants. Cotton plants are nature too, they give life to insects, soil and whole ecosystem.

    You suggest boycotting Uzbekistan cotton, but people will suffer, and starve and die, and even less would be done for ecology than now.

    Keep the big picture in mind.

  52. ZCJ

    On February 2, 2009 at 2:18 am


    Dear Wake Up, the big picture includes the whole system. This is an example of people living beyond the means of the system. That people are not starving and dying now is only a temporary matter; they’re grandchildren or thereafter are already dead or suffering.

  53. SHO

    On February 2, 2009 at 11:53 am


    Very nice article. Uzbekistan is the 2nd largest exporter of cotton, and I believe the vast majority of it goes to China, so one way to keep buying cotton not from Uzbekistan would be to buy American. However, Uzbek cotton is higher quality, as it is picked by hand (by schoolkids, in large part, who take a month off school every year to harvest without remuneration), so it’s probably not what’s used in the cheapest stuff you get, but my guess is more in the mid-range cotton products.

  54. j

    On February 2, 2009 at 6:53 pm


    Yeah, they lost a sea, but they gained a huge salt flat. In a generation, all that salt could be harvested for a number of uses, even if parts of it were polluted. Then, the fields could be abandoned, the rivers let lose, the sea refilled, and fish seeded to catch for a generation before they divert water to the fields and start all over.

    It’d be a shame to waste all the work that went into draining that sea. Make the best of it, and think long term.

  55. David

    On February 4, 2009 at 6:36 pm


    For those refering to what they see on “GOOGLEMAPS” remember those maps are not updated daily – or in many cases not even yearly so cannot be trusted or compared for information

  56. yasmin

    On February 6, 2009 at 10:13 am


    I don’t think it matters between which borders this is taking place. Whatever happens on one corner of the earth with influence and impact another. Recent climate events have shown this continuously and here we are arguing about where it is, who’s going to fix it and bla bla bla. I think articles like this serve to show us that the environmental situation is getting worse WORLDWIDE!! All of us, individually and together have to do something about this because as someone said above, earth will regenerate itself but only if we are gone or if we do something about our self destructing habits.

  57. Rayman

    On March 6, 2009 at 11:41 am


    These People pay the price for their own greed it can not be helped by the rest of the world until they put away their greed for this is gods punishment upon them.

  58. geoge

    On March 12, 2009 at 2:26 pm


    hi

  59. bryce

    On March 12, 2009 at 2:33 pm


    hi

  60. Davis

    On April 9, 2009 at 8:18 pm


    HELLO,MOTO

  61. Alessandra86

    On May 12, 2009 at 5:09 am


    Our fault…nothing more to say :(

  62. laura

    On May 12, 2009 at 5:45 am


    soy española y cuando e visto estas fotos de este mar me e quedado alucinada que pasada!!!

  63. Terry

    On May 12, 2009 at 8:43 am


    A similar event is happening right here in Australia, with the slow but unnecessary death of the only major river in our country…the Murray. Upstream in Victoria and New South Wales, damming and water taken by agriculture and farming has prevented water reaching the mouth of the river in South Australia for a very long time. As a result, the river mouth and the lower lakes Alexandrina and Albert have now become dangerously acidic, and the entire biodiversity of the river, it’s fauna, flora, everything, is becoming almost irreversibly changed,

    Greed on behalf of both government and unsuitable farming practices (eg, growing rice and cotton…in this country!!) are to blame and nothing but lip service has been given to address the issue. It’s a shame that people take notice only when it’s almost too late.

  64. Jeremy

    On May 12, 2009 at 8:54 am


    Three cheers for central planning.

  65. sdfg

    On May 12, 2009 at 9:26 am


    I really dont get why this scary….

  66. leticia

    On May 12, 2009 at 1:54 pm


    pero q feo, estamos terminando cn nuestro hermoso mundo buaaaaaaaaa!!

  67. alberto

    On May 12, 2009 at 11:45 pm


    Al fin y al cabo era una mierda de mar. Ahora podran construir cass, incluso un nuevo Las Vegas. Me gusta mas así.

  68. ..

    On June 15, 2009 at 1:43 pm


    LOAD OF BULL SHEAT ER LIVE HARE AND THE SEA OF ARAL ES COMPLUTLY FELLED FROM THE DAM THEY PUT IN

  69. jumba.

    On June 15, 2009 at 1:47 pm


    arggg i no tink this is a very smart idea

  70. mme. freiha

    On June 15, 2009 at 1:49 pm


    i love this lake i skinny dip in it every morining

  71. janice

    On September 3, 2009 at 2:48 pm


    It can take courage to open one’s eyes. Thank you

  72. jhenz

    On November 18, 2009 at 12:13 am


    very tragic…

  73. catlord

    On January 29, 2010 at 3:13 pm


    maddening

  74. swarnaw

    On February 6, 2010 at 5:00 am


    very sad news

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