The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between the Southern part of Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan. Up until the third quarter of the 20th century it was the world?s fourth largest saline lake, and contained 10grams of salt per liter. The two rivers that feed it are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively reaching the Sea through the South and the North. The Soviet government decided in the 1960s to divert those rivers so that they could irrigate the desert region surrounding the Sea in order to favor agriculture rather than supply the Aral Sea basin. The reason why we decided to explore the implications up to today of this human alteration of the environment is precisely that certain characteristics of the region, from its geography to its population growth, account for dramatic consequences since the canals have been dug. Those consequences range from unexpected climate feedbacks to public health issues, affecting the lives of millions of people in and out of the region.

By establishing a program to promote agriculture and especially that of cotton, Soviet government led by Khrouchtchev in the 1950s deliberately deprived the Aral Sea of its two main sources of water income, which almost immediately led to less water arriving to the sea. Not only was all this water being diverted into canals at the expense of the Aral Sea supply, but the majority of it was being soaked up by the desert and blatantly wasted (between 25% and 75% of it, depending on the time period). The water level in the Aral Sea started drastically decreasing from the 1960s onward. In normal conditions, the Aral Sea gets approximately one fifth of its water supply through rainfall, while the rest is delivered to it by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Evaporation causes the water level to decrease by the same amount that flows into the Sea, making it sustainable as long as inflow is equal to evaporation on average. Therefore the diversion of rivers is at the origin of the imbalance that caused the sea to slowly desiccate over the last 4 decades.

Level of salinity rose from approximately 10g/l to often more than 100g/l in the remaining Southern Aral. Salinity of the rivers varies with place and time, as well as through the seasons. When going through the desert, rivers often collect some salt compounds residues in the ground that result in higher salinity, but may well be lowered again after going through irrigated lands. Dams also affect salinity, notably by reducing its variability with the seasons. Smaller lakes within the Aral Sea that have stopped being fed by river flows tend to have higher salinity due to evaporation, causing some or all fishes that either survived or had been reintroduced in the 1990s to die. Even re-watering those lakes does not compensate for the increased salinity over the years. In 1998, water level was down by 20m, with a total volume of 210km3 compared to 1,060km3 in 1960.


comparisons of the aral sea

Most of the changes in climate and landscape in the Aral Sea basin that we are about to explore are at the least indirect products of Human induced changes. While we must remember at all times that society is responsible for the crisis that has unfolded in and around the Aral, the point we want to make is that most of the actual changes that have afflicted the Sea since the 1960s are the result of our environment’s reaction to the stresses society has imposed on it. Thus, the difficulty lies as much in understanding the way climate and other natural systems function as in being capable of weighing the potential consequences of our actions before we undertake them. Risk assessment combined with scientific understanding should undercut our actions more efficiently; adding an ethical dimension to the equation remains more than welcome in addition to those more accessible and quantifiable factors, but is too fragile to be the centerpiece on which our decisions rely before we commit to large scale actions which can often, as we are about to see, engender even larger responses from our environment.


map of the aral sea

ship in a sea of sand

a walk for water