Situated on the desert basin between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea once spanned over 68,000 square kilometers, making it the fourth largest lake in the world. Yet over the past 50 years human actions have caused over 90 percent of the sea to evaporate, initiating a chain reaction that may eventually lead to the displacement of Central Asia’s 60 million inhabitants.
In 1918 the fledging Soviet government embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the southern desert regions of the new empire into fertile farmland in hopes of becoming a net exporter of cotton – which the Soviet’s referred to as “white gold”.
In order to achieve this goal, the government hatched a plan to build an irrigation network made up of dams and canals in the areas of modern day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Lenin himself championed the project, writing: “Irrigation will do more that anything else to revive the area and regenerate it, bury the past and make the transition to socialism more certain.”
Work began on the project in the 1940’s as part of Stalin’s infrastructure-building initiative entitled “The Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature”. The plan called for large dams to be constructed across both the Amu and Syr rivers, which carry water from the Tian Shan mountain range to the Aral Sea. The waters were then redirected into an 850-mile long central canal, which branched into an extensive network of sub canals. The entire canal system was then flooded, effectively irrigating millions of acres of land along the canal network.
But the Soviet canals were poorly designed and constructed – vast quantities of water either leaked or evaporated from the water supply while the water was in transit. In fact, the largest of the canals, the Qaracum canal, is estimated to have lost around 50% of its water in transit, highlighting the inefficiency of the entire system.
In addition, the amount of water needed for the irrigation of cotton and rice, both water intensive crops, quickly exceeded the amount of water available. By 1960, an estimated 40 cubic kilometers of the Aral Sea’s water supply was being diverted for irrigation purposes, leaving little water left to replenish the sea.
Accordingly, from 1961 to 1970 the Aral Sea’s water levels began to decline rapidly, dropping at an average rate of 20 cm per year. This rate tripled during the 1970’s and by the 1980’s water levels were receding by approximately one meter per year. At the same time, both cotton production and water consumption continued to increase, only further exacerbating matters.
By 1989 the Aral Sea had contracted into two smaller lakes – a smaller “Lesser Sea” (North Aral Sea) in the north and a much larger “Greater Sea” (South Aral Sea) in the south. However, the lack of new fresh water coupled with declining sea levels caused salinity levels to triple, effectively sterilizing the sea from all but the hardiest of plant and animal life.
The fall of the Soviet Union
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the newfound states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan attempted to coordinate efforts to stem the lakes disappearance, but to no avail. While the governments succeeded establishing a joint committee to reduce water consumption, nationalistic interests soon prevailed over multi-national cooperation allowing the sea’s demise to continue unabated.
By 1998 the Aral Sea had been divided even further - the Lesser Sea remained intact in the north, but the Greater Sea in the south had receded into eastern and western portions. At the turn of the 21st century the sea underwent its most calamitous contraction yet - the eastern portion of the Greater Sea, the largest of the three remaining lakes, all but disappeared within a matter of years.
Glimmer of hope
Yet in 2005 some positive developments lifted hopes for a manmade solution to the impending disaster. In cooperation with the World Bank, the government of Kazakhstan constructed the “Dike Kokaral”, a concrete dam aimed at preventing the North Aral Sea from receding further.
The project resulted in a rapid increase in water levels and fish populations in the North Aral Sea and a decrease in salinity levels much sooner than expected. The restoration may have also influenced climate conditions enough to bring rain clouds in the area, bringing guarded optimism that the Aral Sea has yet to see its final day.
However work on the South Aral Sea still remains largely outside of the political spectrum. The Uzbek government remains intent on maintaining its water-intensive cotton plantations on the shores of the Amu River, while increasing interest in oil exploration in the empty southern seabed could deter the government from engaging in future attempts to halt the receding waters if oil is indeed discovered.
By 2010 more than 90% of the Aral Sea had vanished, leaving only a sliver of water remaining on the western coast and a part of the northern lake intact. It is estimated that by 2020 what remains of the South Aral Sea will have finally vanished
The evaporation of the lake had devastating effects on the surrounding communities. The drastic reduction in water volume increased the salt, mineral and pollution content to toxic levels, killing off entire populations of fish. The region’s fishing industry, which at its peak produced an estimated 1/6th of the total fish caught in the Soviet Union and employed some 40,000 people, completely collapsed leaving the surrounding communities in a state of widespread unemployment and destitution.
However, most frightening was the fate of Vozrozhdenya Island. A former testing ground for Soviet biological weapons during the Cold War, the island carried traces of tularemia, bubonic plague and anthrax on its shores. Testing in 1999 revealed that living anthrax spores were still present on the island, sparking fears of outbreak once the island became fully exposed in 2001.
The receding waters also left a mélange of other toxic chemicals in its wake - the remnants of years of excess pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use due to outdated Soviet monoculture farming techniques. This toxic residue, which settled on the exposed seabed, was picked up by the increasingly frequent dust storms that began sweeping through the deserted basin, spreading the toxic dusts across the region. It’s estimated that 75 million tons of toxic dusts are dispersed across the Central Asia region every year.
The resulting air and water pollution have caused severe, lasting health problems for populations living in the area. After breathing and ingesting the toxic particles for years, the regions’ inhabitants now suffer from a throat cancer rate 9 times higher than the world average. The inhabitants also experienced a sharp increase in certain types of cancers, kidney diseases, respiratory illnesses, resistant strains of tuberculosis and currently suffer from one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
However it appears that the worst is still to come.
The shrinking waters significantly impacted the environmental balance of the region. The receding waters removed much needed moisture from the region’s environment, shifting the entire region from a semi-arid climate to a harsh desert climate. This in turn had profound effects on the local weather patterns, which quickly transitioned from a moderate climate to a harsher desert like climate with shorter, hotter summers and longer, colder winters.
As the local climate increases in temperature and decrease in humidity, the nearby glaciers of the Tian Shan mountain range began to melt, threatening to permanently disrupt the flow of water to the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers – the only source of fresh water for the sixty million people of the Central Asia region.
The disruption of water could have drastic impacts on a region already rife with ethnic tensions. The population centers of the region are largely concentrated in the Fergana Valley region – a region that Stalin purposefully carved into several indefensible states so as to preclude any regional power from emerging. The irregular borders, which now define Eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, created a volatile mixture of ethnic groups which has led to numerous ethnic conflicts in both the 20th and 21st century.
Tensions erupted most recently in 2010, after government insecurity sparked riots between Kygyz and Uzbeck populations in the southern Kyrgyzstani cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Future water scarcity could trigger similar security dilemmas among the various ethnic groups of the region, as competing ethnicities scramble to claim increasingly valuable water resources.
As climate change threatens to overtake the region, the areas surrounding the valley, including the major population centers of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are also in danger of losing their water resources – leading to what may eventually be a food shortage of catastrophic proportions. If these trends continue, the populations in the greater Central Asian region may have no other choice but to seek out a more hospitable environment.
No solutions in sight
Yet these 60 million refugees would have very few directions to turn. While the regions’ inhabitants may gradually disperse in limited numbers to nearby regions such as northern Afghanistan or eastern China, geographical constraints prevent the mass migration of populations to these areas. To the south, Afghanistan’s rough terrain and limited resources deter any large migrant population, while to the east the Chinese desert provides an even less hospitable environment. To the west, vast deserts block mass movement towards the Caspian Sea and Eastern Iran. Only the northern roads towards Kazakhstan and Russia remain open as potential options.
However the consequences of a large population influx into Russia remain difficult to foresee. On the one hand, Russia has room to spare – the country suffers from a declining population and is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with a population density of 8 people per square kilometer or 22 people per square mile. New immigration, if gradual and well managed, could provide cheap labor, spur population growth and create new settlements in the country’s peripheral regions, helping to revive the country’s gradually declining economy.
Yet if the influx of immigrants is overwhelming and chaotic, the results could be disastrous. As the country lacks basic infrastructure in the southern regions where the migrants are most likely to enter, any large, disorganized influx of people would be difficult for the central government to manage and support, leading to a potentially problematic humanitarian situation. In addition, as Russia’s native population is heavily concentrated in urban area bordering the European continent, a large influx of immigrants into rural areas could destabilize the country by stoking tensions between the declining urban Russian population and the rising rural immigrant populations – especially if the immigrant populations become unsatisfied with government services in underdeveloped rural areas.
In either case, the future remains precarious for the populations of Central Asia. Barring a large-scale multi-national effort to replenish the waters of the Aral Sea by building new canals, the current trend of desertification and glacial evaporation seems inevitable, leaving the populations of the region with little choice but to gradually disperse towards nearby populations centers. In the future, it seems that Russia will likely be forced to bear the brunt of the burden created by the mistakes of its predecessor.