Aral Sea
Many lakes on the earth’s surface show dynamic behaviour due to a combination of natural and human factors, and can show a tendency to shrink (Lake Chad, Lake Urmia) or even disappear completely. However, the Aral Sea, on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is a unique case, given the huge scale of the event, and the fact that the lake was deliberately sacrificed by Soviet planners.

In the early 1960s, the two great rivers that fed the lake, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, were diverted in order to irrigate immense cotton plantations.
At that time the lake covered an area of approximately 68,000 km˛, roughly the same surface area as Lake Victoria, the world’s fourth-largest lake.
Since 1985 the size of the Aral Sea has been monitored using satellite images. The rapid desiccation process has brought with it a huge number of environmental problems.

First, the increased salinity of the water has devastated fishing, which was once the main industry of the people living on the shores of the lake. Of the 24 species of fish that once lived there, only four remain.

In addition, the sand dunes of the Kyzyl Kum desert are advancing to where the lake used to be. The bare earth is covered by a layer of salt that has been rendered toxic by the fertilisers and defoliants used for many years in the cotton fields.

But the area is affected by something even more lethal: for decades, the island of Vozrozhdeniye in the centre of the lake was home to Soviet laboratories for the development of chemical and biological weapons. It was not abandoned until after 1989. Because of the desiccation of the lake, the island became permanently connected with the mainland between 2000 and 2001 (see the event documented on the NASA Earth Observatory website). The level of contamination on the former island has not yet been established, but we are certainly facing an environmental time bomb of incalculable destructive power.

In recent years the northern part of the lake, in Kazakh territory, has increased in size and depth, thanks partly to an enormous dam built to separate the northern half from the south, which is now considered to be irrevocably lost. It is one small but important sign of hope for the lake, the site of the world’s worst ecological disaster.

Download image: The Aral Sea on a map attributed to Nikolai
Vladimirovich Khanikoff, a nineteenth century Russian traveller
Download image: A NASA-MODIS image of the Aral Sea in 2004.
The blue line shows the coastal profile as it was in 1960.

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