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The greatest ecological disaster of the 21st century

The Chernobyl of Asia: the Aral Sea was once the largest lake in Asia but it has become the greatest ecological disaster of the 21st century. But what exactly happened to the Aral Sea, and is there any way to save it? The Aral Sea is the ‘brother’ of the Caspian Sea and is located on the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It is not the first time it has disappeared, but could be the last one. Until the 10–12th century it was called the ‘lake that dried up’, but later in the 17th century it recovered bringing life back to the people living nearby.

But where did this amount of water go?

The drying up of the lake was part of a natural process. In a dry continental climate, temperature variations are great, there is little precipitation, thus the lake can rapidly lose water from its basin due to evaporation. Because of such conditions, the surrounding rivers play a key role: the lake was fed by Amu-Darja and Sir-Darja. This balance worked quite well until human greed and stupidity intervened in the work of nature. The drainage of rivers triggered a process that caused a great ecological disaster. One with consequences which we will all suffer in the future as well.

It seemed like a good idea

In the 1870s, when the water from the two rivers was used to irrigate the area, they did not yet know what serious problems the drainage of the water would cause in the future. However, the seemingly absurd idea that was later born in support of the economic policy of the Soviet Union finally proved to be fatal to the lake. It was decided to grow cotton and rice in the desert but these crops are quite water-intensive, however, according to the plan, the water of the two rivers would have solved the problem of irrigation.

To do this, they first sought to reverse the flow of the rivers with nuclear explosions, and then they created canals and dams to have the right amount of water. The result was successful in part: this area became the 3rd largest cotton plantation in the world requiring a 36,000 km long canal system, 45 dams and 80 reservoirs. Among the results, we should also mention that the 4th largest lake in the world was ‘successfully’ dried up.

Consequences of the drying up

Up to the present day the lake has lost 80% of its area. As a consequence of the Aral Sea drying up, the Aralkum Desert was born, where the surreal photos of stranded fishing boats rusting in the sand were taken and later spread across the world.

Fish species became extinct, the salinity of the air rose, and the chemicals used to grow cotton were released into the air and spread over a large area. Therefore, it is not surprising that this area has the highest rate of severe and fatal respiratory diseases. The incidence of infant mortality and liver cancer also increased significantly due to the chemicals.

Those living in the area get their drinking water from the Amu plant, which in turn is not purified, only chlorinated, so it is full of harmful substances that cause further damage to the bodies of those living in the vicinity. Yet, purified drinking water is key and essential to live a healthy life.

Mortality statistics are tragic in the Aral Sea region. Due to the polluted water, air and soil, the average age of local people is only 50 years, and one in ten children dies of bronchitis and anaemia or blood and thyroid cancers before the age of 1. The region is witnessing a depopulation since there is no fishing or fish processing anymore, thus jobs are also not available.

Bringing the lake back to life

Researchers argue that the process is only partially irreversible. It will take a lot of money and work to bring the lake back to life and to make it a source of life for the locals again. In the 1990s there was an attempt to increase the size of the water area and reduce the salinity of the water in the form of an embankment dam, but later, unfortunately the dam burst.

Considering these partial successes, the Kok-Aral dam was built in 2005. Thanks to this, the water level rose by 2 metres, the water area increased by 18%, while the salinity in the water halved. Saving the lake is in everyone’s interest, thus larger subsidies will be provided in the future to increase the water area and to bring the Aral Sea back to life again.


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