Courtesy of Foreign Policy, an updated look at the tragedy of the Aral Sea:
“…The Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south, is a sad story of one of the most devastating ecological disasters in human history. Once the worldâ€™s fourth-largest body of fresh water in terms of surface area, the sea has shrunk by 90 percent since the 1960s. In the last 50 years its water surface has fallen from 65,000 to 9,000 square kilometers and its water level has decreased by more than 25 meters, causing the sea to separate into two water bodies, the Southern and Northern Aral Seas.
The countries of the region are trying to grapple with the double task of economic development and recovering from the disasters of Soviet environmental engineering which included the Khrushchevâ€™s â€œvirgin landsâ€ campaign of the 1950s and 1960s as well as megafarm projects that diverted water from major rivers for the irrigation of cotton monoculture in the arid Central Asian steppe, making Uzbekistan one of the largest cotton producers in the world. This led to the desertification of the downstream areas and the Aral Sea disaster, which continues to shrink today.
According to the National Geographic, the Amu Darya that fed the Aralâ€™s south end receded and now ends at a dam, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) away. Over the years, the riverâ€™s flow fell drastically, from 28,000 cubic feet per second (793 cubic meters) to just 5,500 cubic feet (156 cubic meters). The Syr Darya, the river that feeds the Aralâ€™s north end, also suffered from irrigation, but has maintained a tenuous connection to the sea.
The region remains an ecological disaster zone: salinity has increased from 10 to 30 grams per liter, almost as briny as the ocean, all 24 species of native fish vanished and the fishing industry collapsed. Frequent chemical dust storms blow across the barren land filling the air with salt and pesticide particles from the fertilizer run-off. The regionâ€™s climate began to change becoming more extreme and this has also negatively affected the local flora and fauna and the biodiversity of the region. In the 1980s, infant mortality rose to 60 in 1,000, then the highest in the Soviet Union. Today local population suffers from high cancer rates, and the life expectancy fell from 64 years to 51.
Over the past 15 or so years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested into environmental projects aimed at saving the dying sea, both by the Kazakh government and the World Bank. A seven-year project led by the World Bank has helped replenish the Northern Aral by trapping water behind a dike and the sea grew by 20 percent with salinity at 14 grams per liter, not far from 1960 levels. The 13 km (8 mile) Kok-Aral dike is part of a wider, $86 million project that aims to reverse some of the ecological damage. The project also improved irrigation structures upriver from the Aral.
Since the dike was built in 2005, the seaâ€™s turquoise waters have crept as close as 25 kilometers to Aralsk port, from a previous distance of 100 kilometes. Following the project, according to the National Geographic, â€œsoon native plants, stifled for years by the saltwater, began to sprout, and migrating birds like pelicans, flamingos, and ducks again began to visit the Aral. Nowadays, â€˜Itâ€™s a paradise for birds,â€™ says Russian Academy of Sciences zoologist Nick Aladin, who has been studying the Aral since the 1970s. â€˜Itâ€™s a place for pleasure, and itâ€™s an enormous victory.â€™â€ While the larger Southern Aral, located in Uzbekistan has largely been left to diminish further as initial recovery efforts focus on the north.
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