By Mark Synnott (NG, Jun 2015)
The Aral Sea straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and for thousands of years was fed by two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Having no outflow, the sea’s water level was maintained through the natural balance between flow and evaporation.
When Alexander the Great conquered this territory in the 4th century BC, these rivers already had a long history of providing lifeblood to Central Asia. For centuries the Aral Sea and its vast deltas sustained an archipelago of settlements along the Silk Road that connected China to Europe. These ancient populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazaks, and other ethnicities prospered as farmers, fishermen, herders, merchants, and craftsmen.
Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. became part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations. But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious [water] engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert.
According to Philip Micklin, geography professor at Western Michigan University who has watched the demise of the Aral Sea first hand:
Up until the early 1960s the system was fairly stable. When they added even more irrigation canals in the 1960s, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Suddenly the system was no longer sustainable. They knew what they were doing, but what they didn’t realize was the full range of the ecological consequences–and the rapidity with which the sea would vanish.
By 1987 the Aral’s water level had dropped dramatically, splitting it into two bodies of water: a northern sea, which lies in Kazakhstan, and a larger southern sea lying with Karakalpakstan. In 2002 the southern sea got so low it too slit into separate eastern and western seas. Last July the eastern sea dried up entirely.
The only bright spot in this dire saga is the recovery of the northern sea. In 2005, with funding from the World Bank, the Kazakhs completed an 8-mile dam on the northern seas southern shore, creating a fully separate body of water, fed by the Syr Darya. Since the dam was built, the northern sea and its fishery have come back much more quickly than expected. But the dam was cut off the southern sea from one of its crucial water sources, sealing its fate.