The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea. It exists now as an expanding toxic desert that straddles the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Often referred to as ‘the quiet Chernobyl,’ the Aral Sea is understood now as one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history.
The sea first began to shrink in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union decided to divert the two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which brought glacial melt and snowpack from the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains of the southeast. The reasoning behind the Soviet decision was to reinvigorate part of the desert in order to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Up to 75% of the diverted water was completely wasted as it soaked into the sand. The results were severely underestimated. The outcome is a dismal failure that continues to devastate.
By 2000, the lake was a sad, emaciated version of its former self, which separated the smaller Northern Aral Sea from the much larger Southern Aral Sea. Now, in 2014, the eastern basin of the Southern Sea has dried up completely for the first time in an estimated 600 years.
Kazakhstan even built a dam between the northern and southern sections in a last attempt to save the Aral Sea. Completed in 2005, the dam was basically a death sentence for the southern Aral Sea, which was judged as decimated-beyond-saving, according to NASA.
Recently released images from NASA’s Earth Observatory show the extent of the lake’s recession over the past 14 years. Since 1960 it has lost more than 60% of its area and 80% of its volume. Falling water levels have changed the local climate, resulting in extremely hot summers, freezing winters, and frequent dust storms.
The sharp surge in the Aral’s salinity levels devastated fishing throughout the Aral basin, combined with other factors. The water also became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides from the cotton fields and became a public health hazard. “You can’t see salt in the air, but you feel it on the skin, and you can feel it on the tongue. Mixed with chemicals, everything is much worse,” said a local woman whose husband suffers from chronic bronchitis.
The diminishment of the Aral Sea has somehow prompted a surge of tourism in the region, an opportunity that may not be around for much longer. Being a unique phenomenon of the twentieth century, the ocean is still considered to be a little explored wonder, but has just started attracting visitors to its harsh, wild and “Martian” beauty. Local tour operators in Nukus, the capital of western Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, are seeing a huge growth in travel enquiries to visit the shores of the Aral Sea before the opportunity vanishes.
A number of ecological tours are organised for tourist’s visits to Muynak – a once thriving town with fleets of fishing boats and numerous canning factories. What remains is a skeletal aftermath; 150 km retreated from the waning shores, a stark reminder of the relentless violence of a desert landscape.
Fishing boats and schooners pepper the dry expanses and are popular tourist attractions, set tilted and rusting in the desert sand. These wreckages and other fragmented structures expose an ugly reminder of the truth of the devastation of human intervention in a place they know very little about.
[Cover Photo: Martijn Munneke via Flickr]