Posted by: ahowland | 3rd Feb, 2011

The Tragic Tale of the Aral Sea

The Shrinking of the Aral Sea

This week in class, we have learned a lot of ways humans have degraded the environment and really, just plain completely messed it up. Take for instance the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea used to be the 4th largest sea in the entire world. Now it is completely dwarfed by the Caspian Sea and has lost 80% of its water. Why might you ask? The answer is simple: Humans. In the early 1960s when the Soviet Union owned the entire area, including the Aral Sea, the Soviet government decided to divert the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast. The diverted rivers were feed into the desert to irrigate it so the area could grow cash crops, particularly cotton (“white gold”) and rice. And it worked; today Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton. However, the price for the crops was steep. By the late 1960s, the Aral Sea began to shrink. In 1964, the sea received 50 km3 of water each year with 60,000 people working in fisheries and canning industries supported by the large fish population in the sea; by 1897, there was 0 flow into the sea and by 2000, there was 0 fish and 0 people making a living off the sea. It decimated people jobs and lives.

Another factor that resulted from the shrinking sea is that the sea receded, it exposed the dried lake bed underneath with sediment that contained chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. As the wind swept through the area, it picked up these chemicals and spread them throughout the entire area and also the globe. Chemicals from the Aral Sea’s dried up sea bed has been traced as far as Antarctica in penguin’s blood. Antarctica! Which is utterly shocking. We are harming poor penguin’s lives and not to mention countless other species.

A lot of Americans scoff this off, thinking it’s not going to affect us at all since we live in a powerful, developed country. But they should be worried because it is happening right here in America too. The Great Salt Lake in Utah as already shrunk some as well as Lake Mead in California. Water is going to become a very serious problem in the future, and its time we start fixing these problems and prepare for the future.
(Picture from:


Amanda, this is a great summary of the problem we talked about this week of economic, social and environmental catastrophe in the Aral Sea. During our discussion, I was also stuck by the sheer number of problems that followed the government’s solution to a “simple” problem. Learning about the past civilizations of Easter Island and the Anastazi, I can’t help but question what will future people be saying about us?

Changing something as drastic as natural water flow seems ridiculous to us now, but in the 60’s it was a brilliant solution to agricultural irrigation.

When we talk about nuclear and “clean coal” technologies, desalinization, or any other “solution” to problems we’ve created, I fear that we’re stepping into our own Aral Sea story of the next 50 years.

I wondered what had happened to the people of the Aral Sea region, if they depended on the lake for food and irrigation, their ability to sustain was drastically diminished with the lake shrinkage. I am sure that a lot of them were forced to leave their homeland. I find his most disturbing, it wasn’t even their fault that a foreign power destroyed their lake and yet they were the ones to carry the burden. It reminds me of the movie “Avatar” where the nature-friendly, indigenous people are faced against power-hungry military-superior invaders, who ultimately fail but still cause widespread, irrevocable distraction.
Our world really needs wise and sensitive leaders to be in charge of the most influential countries.

Wow, Tori, I never thought about what future generations will say about us, as we now are saying about previous generation’s mistakes, but it is a good question. While it is true that it does seem ridiculous to us now that entirely redircting two rivers is a good thing to do, even though back then they thought it was a good solution, I can’t help but wonder what things we do now that we think are a good idea too will actually be really bad 50 years from now.
And isikora, you’re right. It reminds me of Avatar in that sense too.
Thanks for the responses 🙂

Great post and comments. Where did you find that figure? It’s a good one (and you need to give credit). And it is interesting that we can find examples of almost every problem around the world not too far from home.


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