The Aral Sea

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Podcast Transcript

At the start of the 20th century, the world’s third-largest lake was located in Central Asia. It had been known to the people of the Asian steppes for thousands of years. 

However, by the end of the 20th century, the lake had all but disappeared. 

Somehow, over the course of a century, one of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water had all but vanished, stranding the many ships which once sailed the lake.

Learn more about the Aral Sea and how it disappeared on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Aral Sea was once one of the most notable parts of Central Asia. It crossed what is today Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. 

As late as 1960, the lake had an area of approximately 68,000 square kilometers or 26,300 square miles. This would have put it between Lake Victoria and Lake Huron in size. 

The Aral Sea was an endorheic lake. 

An endorheic lake is one where the water doesn’t drain out. There is no drainage out to the sea. The Caspian Sea is an endorheic lake, as is Crater Lake in Oregon, Lake Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and the Dead Sea.

Endorheic lakes tend to mostly be found in mountains or deserts.  

Because they have no drainage, the only way to remove water from the lake is by evaporation or seepage into the ground. 

Two major rivers primarily fed the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

The Amu Darya originates in the Pamir mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan and flows northwest. The Syr Darya also flows northwest originating in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

The name Aral comes from the Turkic and Mongol languages of the people of the steppes. The word “aral” means island, as there were over 1,100 islands in the lake. So, the Aral Sea roughly translates to the “sea of islands.”

The Aral Sea is situated in a strategic location that has been the crossroad of many major empires. 

Archeological evidence has shown that humans have lived on the shore of the Aral Sea for at least 6,000 years. 

During the Bronze Age, the Oxus civilization arose just to the south of the Aral Sea along the rivers which fed into it.

In the 6th century BC, the Achaemenid Persian Empire controlled the region and established the Satrapy of Sogdiana along the banks of the Aral Sea.

Alexander the Great may have visited when his troops crossed the Amu Darya.

It was then part of the Parthian and Sassanian Persian empires.

The Aral Sea marked the boundary of the Tang Dynasty in China, which was the furthest that any Chinese empire ever extended. 

It was then conquered by the Islamic Caliphate, the Mongol Empire, the Timurid Empire, and then the Russian Empire in the 19th century. 

The Russians were the first to systematically study the lake, and to establish a modern economy around it.

Because it was an endorheic lake, there was no way to sail a ship into the lake from somewhere else. So, the Russians disassembled ships, moved them by rail, and then over land, so they could be reassembled on the shore. 

In 1851, two Swedish-built steamships arrived on the lake, but the problem was there was no coal to fuel the ships. They tried burning local bushes found in the region, but it didn’t work. 

While the Aral Sea has found itself at the crossroads of history for thousands of years, the starting point for the events which make it of interest for the purposes of this episode began with the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets, having assumed control of the Russian Empire, found themselves with much of Central Asia under its control. In the early 20th century, the economies of this region were still primarily subsistence agriculture. 

The Soviet economic system was based on a series of five-year plans. Rather than letting different regions produce that which was most viable, they would just dictate what was to be produced regardless if it made economic sense. 

They decided that they were going to modernize the economy in the region by making it a major agricultural producer. The biggest crop they were going to focus on was cotton. 

Cotton is a very water-intensive plant. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, which is equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

An arid region such as Central Asia is probably not the best place to grow cotton. 

Beginning in the 1930s, the Soviets began a system of irrigation canals to divert water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers.  In the 1960s, the adoption of the plan to turn the region into a cotton producer massively increased the amount of irrigation in the region. 

I should note that this wasn’t the first time in history that the rivers were diverted for agricultural purposes. In 1417, the Persian scholar Hafiz-i Abru wrote of parts of the Aral Sea drying up due to diversions of water for farming.

However, the ability of Persians of the middle ages to divert water was vastly different than the industrial techniques of the Soviets. 

The Soviet irrigation projects were large, but they weren’t necessarily very efficient. Much of the water went to waste.

The largest irrigation canal in Central Asia, the Qaraqum Canal, is estimated to lose 30 to 75% of its water due to leakage and evaporation.

Almost none of the canals were built with waterproofing or water conservation in mind. The big channels were built to move water and meet the goals of the five-year plan, not actually to do so efficiently.

By 1960, an estimated 20 to 60 cubic kilometers or 4.8 to 14.4 cubic miles of water was being diverted from the Aral Sea.

With dramatically less water coming in, the balance between inflow and evaporation was upset, and the lake began shrinking.

Throughout the 1960s, the lake’s water level fell an average of 20 centimeters or 8 inches per year.

In the 1970s, it accelerated. Water levels dropped by 50 to 60 centimeters or 20 to 24 inches each year.

In the 1980s, it got even worse. Water levels dropped an average of 80 to 90 centimeters or 31 to 35 inches a year.

The lake quickly began to disappear.

This, however, wasn’t a surprise to anyone. In 1964, a Soviet hydrologist by the name of Aleksandr Asarin pointed out the fate of the lake if the irrigation projects were to continue. 

He said, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

As the Aral began to disappear, the reaction of the Soviets was mostly to explain it away or to justify its disappearance. One Soviet engineer dismissed it by saying that the evaporation of the Aral Sea was inevitable.

Prior to 1960, over 40,000 people worked in the fishing industry on the Aral Sea, producing one-sixth of the total catch for the Soviet Union. That industry was completely destroyed. 

By 1987, the Aral had shrunk so much that it split into two different lakes, the North and South Aral Seas. 

As the waters receded, the remaining water became more and more salty, rendering it inhospitable for the aquatic life which remained. Moreover, the inefficient farming techniques used resulted in pesticide runoff into what water was left making it highly polluted as well.

By 2007, the Aral Sea had lost 90% of its water, and the remaining 10% of devoid of all life save for salt-tolerant microbes. 

Former fishing villages were now kilometers away from water and became ship graveyards, with former fishing vessels decaying on their sides. The region of the former coast of the Aral Sea has become a dark tourist attraction.

I should note that the cotton production plan did sort of work, at least briefly. In 1988, Uzbekistan, then known as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, was the world’s largest exporter of cotton. 

While Uzbekistan is still a major cotton producer, it hasn’t been able to sustain the production it did before. 

The disappearance of the Aral Sea has been one of the biggest environmental disasters on Earth. 

Nonetheless, there have been talks of taking steps to restore some of the water. One difficulty is that since the Soviet Union collapsed, it now requires the coordination of two countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which just makes things that much harder. 

In 2005, Kazakhstan built the Dike Kokaral, which is a 12-kilometer-long dam in the North Aral Sea. It wasn’t designed to restore the entire lake but just to preserve what limited parts were left. 

To that extent, the project has been a success. Within two years of completion, the water level in the North Aral Sea rose eight meters, but that only represents a tiny part of the former lake.

There have been plans proposed to divert water from the Volga or Ob rivers, but that would cost tens of billions of dollars. Likewise, there has been talk of creating a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to help slowly refill the Aral Sea. 

One of the biggest steps would just be to make currently existing canals more efficient, reducing the amount of water that is lost. Likewise, modernizing the cotton industry would also reduce the amount of water used.

As of today, other than the Dike Kokaral, little to nothing has been done to stop, let alone reverse, the problem.

The disappearance of the Aral Sea is perhaps the most obvious case of humans shaping the planet. It is noticeable from space, and you can see the dramatic disappearance of the sea in satellite photos over time. 

The inefficient production of a product, growing in a region it was never suited for resulted in the disappearance of one of the world’s greatest lakes.