A girl smiles next to her bicycle at the old part of the village of Karateren, near the Aral Sea, south-western Kazakhstan, April 15, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV)
The Aral Sea, which spans the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, it covered 62,000 square kilometers and an annual commercial fishing catch of 42,000 tons.
In the 1960s, an environmental catastrophe was triggered by diversion of tributary rivers which drained into the Aral Sea for irrigation projects. Lack of fresh water feeding the sea slowly dried it up, increasing the salinity of the area, with grave impact on agriculture and human health.
According to NASA, “although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea. As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Blowing, salty dust from the exposed lake bed became a public health hazard and degraded the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water.”
Today, the salt dunes in the area were 15 meters under sea water. Replacing the dwindling areas of the Aral Sea, the Aralkum Desert is the world’s youngest and most toxic desert, covering an area the size of the Switzerland. With the climate mitigating effects of the Aral Sea reduced, winters are now colder and summers hotter.
This salt-dust has been found as far as Greenland’s glaciers and Japan, and it contains pesticides, fertilizer, chemicals and runoff from the fields, farms and cities of five former Soviet republics of Central Asia and from Afghanistan, moved here by two enormous rivers whose annual flow once exceeded that of the Nile. In the past couple of years, neighboring Central Asian states have had tense arguments about their water, which is so vital to their prosperity.
The health of local people has been significantly impacted by these dust contaminants. Ten percent of children die within the first year of life, the rates of heart and kidney disease have increased greatly due to polluted drinking sources and cancer and tuberculosis rates are 10 time higher than in the 1960s. The average lifespan has plummeted significantly, with the current average age at 51, down from 65.
Despite the desertification of the lake, fish remains a primary food – and the main source of protein for the local residents. Local fish, nevertheless, are highly toxic because the organic toxins are easily accumulated in their fat, particularly in predator fish that top the food chain.
In the heart of this environmental tragedy lie bitter reminders of the area’s more thriving past. Ships and fishing trawlers once used on the Aral Sea are now forsaken and scattered around Moynaq, once a prosperous fishing city in Uzbekistan. The city once hosted 40,000 jobs but today poverty and unemployment are the main concerns of Moynaq’s diminishing population as it struggles to survive. It is a practically post-apocalyptic experience to view Bactrian camels roam around the rusty ships. The ship graveyard is a source of income for some residents of Moynaq. Local businesses pay to salvage anything of value from the vessels.
In an attempt to rescue what was left of the northern portion of the lake, the eight-mile Dike Kokaral was built in 2005. The dam, which was financed by the World Bank, collects water into the Northern Aral part of the lake. While the lake will never be restored to its former glory, signs of life are returning.
According to Dr. Andrey Ptichnikov, executive director of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Russia, there are no special prospects for the restoration of the Aral Sea.
“There is a slight decrease in water consumption, but not so great as to mitigate the ecological situation. The experience of Mexico can be used to improve the situation. Mexico managed to reduce water consumption by half compared to Central Asian countries thanks to well thought-out engineering systems. In addition, they established strict quotas on water, began to observe the technology of irrigation, use modern equipment to control costs.
“But for the implementation of such systems, the will is needed at the state level, because it is difficult to force people to save water, when it is free. And if you introduce a fee for water, a social explosion may follow.”
And more on the negative note, the Uzbek government has faced sustained criticism for not doing enough to salvage the area because of the oil and gas reserves identified under the seabed, which are much easier to extract in dry conditions.
Our planet today is experiencing a surge of water-related crises. The tragic destiny of the Aral Sea must prompt us to act to prevent similar man-made disasters and environmental threats elsewhere.