The production of cotton within the Aral Sea region is largely dependent on irrigation. In 1990 a total of 7.9 million ha was irrigated. Increased salinization of irrigated land poses a serious threat to the agriculture sector. The declining sea level lowered the water table in the region, destroying many oases near its shores.
A thriving commercial fishery has now been completely destroyed. As the Aral shrank, its salinity increased, and by 1977 the formerly large fish catch had declined by over seventy-five percent. By the early 1980s, commercially useful fish had been eliminated, shutting down an industry that had employed 60,000.
The large fish canning factories along the rivers hardly catch any fish anymore. Fishing and related activities used to provide 50% of the Karakalpak income. Former seashore villages and towns are 70 km away from the present shoreline. The exposed seabed consists of vast salt tracts.
The large cotton monoculture in the region is probably the main reason for the dying of the Aral Sea and the increased salinity of agricultural soils. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian states use this water to grow cotton and other export crops, in the face of widespread environmental consequences, including fisheries loss, water and soil contamination, and dangerous levels of polluted airborne sediments.
But the cotton has also led to toxic pollution. For a long time the region was intensively sprayed with persistent pesticides like DDT, often from airplanes that also flew over villages and cotton field workers. Dramatic environmental degradation has occurred, with consequences for the 3.5 million people living around it, including 1.5 million children. It is generally agreed that the current situation is unsustainable, but the poverty and export dependency of the Central Asian states have prevented real action, and the Aral Sea continues to shrink.
The future of Aral Sea
Much progress on environment protection around Aral Sea has been made since 1990. The total water withdrawal in the basin is currently stabilized at about 110-120 cubic km/year.Some estimates put it around 65 cubic km/year in 1960. Further improvement is necessary to meet increasing demand from new water users. The governments in the region together with international scientists are working to prevent additional environment degradation and desertification of the exposed seabed.
The United Nations Environment Programme has warned that without concerted action the Aral Sea could disappear completely by 2020. Aral Sea gained the status of "World Heritage Site" from UNESCO, in order to force a partial restoration of the Southern part of the sea. The partial restoration is believed to be a realistic step toward lessening the human and ecological crisis from which the entire region is suffering.
All the available options and solutions have been studied as part of the regional water strategy which involves only the countries of the former Soviet Union. At a later stage, Afghanistan, covering around 12% of the Aral Sea will be included in the agreements in order to guarantee sustainable water resources management.