Where there is no water, there is no life. A wise saying in Central Asia is becoming the reality today for millions of people living in the region around the Aral Sea. It is one of less than 20 ancient lakes in the world, estimated to be more than 5 million years old. To many, the Aral Sea has become synonymous with environmental catastrophe.
The lake is located between Kazakhstan in the north and Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of Uzbekistan. Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square km (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet Union irrigation projects.
By 2007 it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into smaller lakes. Salinity has increased fourfold. By 2009, the south-eastern lake had disappeared and the south-western lake retreated to a thin strip at the extreme west of the former southern sea.
It is no exaggeration to say that the case of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest environmental crises ever recorded. The local population has used of the waters of the Aral basin for thousands of years, borrowing from its two major rivers. Amu Darya flows into the Aral Sea from the south and the Syr Darya reaches the sea at its north end. As the 20th century began, irrigated agriculture in the basin was still being conducted at a sustainable level. After the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, this began to change.
Cotton production and Soviet influence
In the Soviet Union era massive amounts of water were diverted for irrigation of cotton and the lake began to shrink dramatically. Soviet planners sought products that could be exported for hard currency and found cotton to be the perfect candidate for the region near Aral Sea. The Soviet Union became a net exporter of cotton in 1937 and cotton was often reffered to as white gold.
Traditional agricultural practices were destroyed by collectivization. At the same time, pesticides were being applied to fields in the watershed by airplane. In addition to irrigation-related problems, biological weapons tests involving anthrax and other pathogens were performed on the main island in the Aral Sea until the early 1990's.
Invasive species have negatively affected the biodiversity of the Aral Sea as well. Changes accelerated in the 1950s, as Central Asian irrigated agriculture was expanded and mechanized. The Kara Kum Canal opened in 1956, diverting large amounts of water from the Amu Darya into the desert of Turkmenistan and millions of hectares of land came under irrigation after 1960. The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been essentially destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship.