One of the world’s worse environmental disasters is a manmade catastrophe
The Aral Sea has been drying up and shrinking since the Soviets diverted the rivers that fed it in the 1960s’ It is now 10% of its original size and supports virtually no life.
By all accounts, the Aral Sea – at one time one of the largest freshwater lakes on earth – was a natural jewel up until 60 years ago. A large fleet of fishermen once plied its waters, providing food and a decent living for hundreds of thousands in the otherwise arid steps of Central Asia. But thanks to the central planning craze of the Khrushchev’s era, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya were diverted to irrigation, condemning the lake to extinction. The barren basin that remains is a graveyard of ships that will rust away for the foreseeable future.
The former lake bed is now known as Aralkum: the Aral Desert. The loss of the huge body of water fundamentally changed the nature of the region from arid grassland to “hard” desert.
But it’s a desert with a difference: As the sea way drying up, run off from the cotton fields fed by the irrigation system flowed into the sea bed, concentrating into a poison salt over the years. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides deployed over the course of 50 years have accumulated in the dry sea bed, whence they are spread across Central Asia in the form of toxic dust clouds.
Meanwhile, the absence of the lake combined with global warming is changing the climate. Ironically, the glaciers that feed the two rivers that used to feed the Aral Sea are retreating and the Syr Darya and Amu Darya are also drying up. These watersheds provide water for a huge area of southern Central Asia, meaning that about 40 million people will lose their water supply.
And then things will get interesting as the population joins the swelling ranks of climate refugees.