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The Aral Sea ( Aral Teñizi; ; Aral'skoye More; Bahri Aral; Daryocha-i Khorazm) is an endorheic basin in Central Asia; it lies between Kazakhstanmarker (Aktobemarker and Kyzylordamarker provinces) in the north and Karakalpakstanmarker, an autonomous region of Uzbekistanmarker, in the south. The name roughly translates as "Sea of Islands", referring to more than 1,500 islands of one hectare or more that once dotted its waters. The maximum depth of the sea is .

Once the world's fourth-largest inland saline body of water, with an area of 68,000 km2, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet Unionmarker irrigation projects. By 2007 it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into three separate lakes – the North Aral Seamarker and the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Seamarker. By 2009, the south-eastern lake had disappeared and the south-western lake retreated to a thin strip at the extreme west of the former southern sea.

The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been virtually destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship. The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted, with consequent serious public health problems. The retreat of the sea has reportedly also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer.

There is now an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea. A dam project completed in 2005 has raised the water level of this lake by two metres. Salinity has dropped, and fish are again found in sufficient numbers for some fishing to be viable. The outlook for the remnants of the South Aral Sea remains bleak.

Shrinkage of the sea


Map: lake boundaries c.
1960 with present-day political boundaries.
Countries with any land draining into the lake are in yellow.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea
Aral Sea from space, August 1985
Aral Sea from space, July 2009
Aral Sea from space, August 2009.

In 1918, the Soviet government decided that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Daryamarker in the south and the Syr Daryamarker in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in order to attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or "white gold", to become a major export. This did eventually end up becoming the case, and today Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton.

The construction of irrigation canals began on a large scale in the 1940s. Many of the canals were poorly built, allowing water to leak or evaporate. From the Qaraqum Canalmarker, the largest in Central Asia, perhaps 30 to 75% of the water went to waste. Today only 12% of Uzbekistan's irrigation canal length is waterproofed.

By 1960, between 20 and 60 cubic kilometers of water were going each year to the land instead of the sea. Most of the sea's water supply had been diverted, and in the 1960s the Aral Sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral's sea level fell at an average of 20 cm a year; in the 1970s, the average rate nearly tripled to 50–60 cm per year, and by the 1980s it continued to drop, now with a mean of 80–90 cm each year. The rate of water usage for irrigation continued to increase: the amount of water taken from the rivers doubled between 1960 and 2000, and cotton production nearly doubled in the same period.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as in 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed explaining, "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."

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be "nature's error", and a Soviet engineer said in 1968 that "it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable." On the other hand, starting in the 1960s, a large scale project was proposed to redirect part of the flow of the rivers of the Ob basin to Central Asia over a gigantic canal system. Refilling of the Aral Sea was considered as one of the project's main goals. However, due to its staggering costs and the negative public opinion in Russia proper, the federal authorities abandoned the project by 1986.

From 1960 to 1998, the sea's surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world's fourth-largest lake, with an area of approximately 68,000 km2 and a volume of 1100 km³; by 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 km2, and eighth-largest. The amount of water it has lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lakes Eriemarker and Ontariomarker. Over the same time period its salinity increased from about 10 g/L to about 45 g/L.

In 1987, the continuing shrinkage split the lake into two separate bodies of water, the North Aral Seamarker (the Lesser Sea, or Small Aral Sea) and the South Aral Seamarker (the Greater Sea, or Large Aral Sea). An artificial channel was dug to connect them, but that connection was gone by 1999 as the two seas continued to shrink.

, the South Aral Sea was vanishing faster than predicted. In the deepest parts of the sea, the bottom waters are saltier than the top, and not mixing. Thus, only the top of the sea is heated in the summer, and it evaporates faster than would otherwise be expected. In 2003, the South Aral further divided into eastern and western basins.

As of 2004, the Aral Sea's surface area was only 17,160 km2, 25% of its original size, and a nearly fivefold increase in salinity had killed most of its natural flora and fauna. By 2007 the sea's area had further shrunk to 10% of its original size, and the salinity of the remains of the South Aral had increased to levels in excess of 100 g/L. (By comparison, the salinity of ordinary seawater is typically around 35 g/L; the Dead Seamarker's salinity varies between 300 and 350 g/L.) The decline of the North Aral has now been partially reversed following construction of a dam (see below) but the remnants of the South Aral continue to disappear and its drastic shrinkage has created the Aralkummarker, a desert on the former lakebed.

Even the recently-discovered inflow of water discharge from underground into the Aral Sea will not in itself be able to stop the desiccation. This inflow of about 4 cubic kilometers per year is larger than previously estimated. This groundwater originates in the Pamirsmarker and Tian Shanmarker mountains and finds its way through geological layers to a fracture zone at the bottom of the Aral.

Impact on environment, economy and public health

A former harbor in the city of Aral, Kazakhstan
The ecosystem of the Aral Sea and the river deltas feeding into it has been nearly destroyed, not least because of the much higher salinity. The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, has been decimated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaqmarker in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed approximately 60,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years. The only significant fishing company left in the area has its fish shipped from the Baltic Seamarker, thousands of kilometres away.

Also destroyed is the muskrat trapping industry in the deltas of Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which used to yield as much as 500,000 muskrat pelts a year.

Possible environmental solutions

Many different solutions to the different problems have been suggested over the years, varying in feasibility and cost, including the following:

  • Improving the quality of irrigation canals;
  • Installing desalination plants;
  • Charging farmers to use the water from the rivers;
  • Using alternative cotton species that require less water;
  • Using fewer chemicals on the cotton;
  • Moving farming away from cotton;
  • Installing dams to fill the Aral Sea;
  • Redirecting water from the Volga, Ob and Irtyshmarker rivers. This would restore the Aral Sea to its former size in 20–30 years at a cost of US$30–50 billion;
  • Pumping sea water into the Aral Sea from the Caspian Seamarker via a pipeline, and diluting with freshwater from local catchment areas.

In January 1994, the countries of Kazakhstanmarker, Uzbekistanmarker, Turkmenistanmarker, Tajikistanmarker and Kyrgyzstanmarker signed a deal to pledge 1% of their budgets to helping the sea recover.

In March 2000 UNESCO presented their Water-related vision for the Aral Sea basin for the year 2025 at the second World Water Forum in The Hague. This document was criticized for setting unrealistic goals, and also for giving insufficient attention to the interests of the area immediately around the former lakesite, implicitly giving up on the Aral Sea and the people living on the Uzbek side of the lake.

By 2006, the World Bank's restoration projects, especially in the North Aral, were giving rise to some unexpected, tentative relief in what had been an extremely pessimistic picture.

North Aral Sea restoration work

Work is being done to restore in part the North Aral Sea. Irrigation works on the Syr Darya have been repaired and improved to increase its water flow, and in October 2003, the Kazakh government announced a plan to build Dike Kokaralmarker, a concrete dam separating the two halves of the Aral Sea. Work on this dam was completed in August 2005; since then the water level of the North Aral has risen, and its salinity has decreased. As of 2006, some recovery of sea level has been recorded, sooner than expected. "The dam has caused the small Aral's sea level to rise swiftly to 38 m (125 ft), from a low of less than 30 m (98 ft), with 42 m (138 ft) considered the level of viability." Economically significant stocks of fish have returned, and observers who had written off the North Aral Sea as an environmental disaster were surprised by unexpected reports that in 2006 its returning waters were already partly reviving the fishing industry and producing catches for export as far as Ukraine. The restoration reportedly gave rise to long absent rain clouds and possible microclimate changes, bringing tentative hope to an agricultural sector swallowed by a regional dustbowl, and some expansion of the shrunken sea. "The sea, which had receded almost 100 km south of the port-city of Aralmarker, is now a mere 25 km away." There are plans to build a new canal to reconnect Aralsk with the sea. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2009, by which time it is hoped the distance to be covered will be only 6 km. A new dam is to be built based on a World Bank loan to Kazakhstan, with the start of construction also slated for 2009 to further expand the shrunken Northern Aral eventually to the withered former port of Aralsk.

Future of South Aral Sea

The South Aral Sea, which lies in poorer Uzbekistan, was largely abandoned to its fate. Projects in the North Aral at first seemed to bring glimmers of hope to the South as well: "In addition to restoring water levels in the Northern Sea, a sluice in the dike is periodically opened, allowing excess water to flow into the largely dried-up Southern Aral Sea." Discussions had been held on recreating a channel between the somewhat improved North and the desiccated South, along with uncertain wetland restoration plans throughout the region, but political will is lacking. Uzbekistan shows no interest in abandoning the Amu Darya river as an abundant source of cotton irrigation, and instead is moving toward oil exploration in the drying South Aral seabed. Attempts to mitigate the effects of desertification include planting vegetation in the newly exposed seabed.

Based on the recent data, the southwestern part of the South Aral could last for another 50–125 years.

Bioweapons facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island

In 1948, a top-secret Sovietmarker bioweapons laboratory was established on the island in the center of the Aral Sea which is now disputed territory between Kazakhstanmarker and Uzbekistanmarker. The exact history, functions and current status of this facility have not yet been disclosed. The base was abandoned in 1992 following the disintegration of the Soviet Unionmarker. Scientific expeditions proved that this had been a site for production, testing and later dumping of pathogenic weapons. In 2002, through a project organized by the United States and with Uzbekistan assistance, 10 anthrax burial sites were decontaminated. According to the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Infections, all burial sites of anthrax were decontaminated.

Oil and gas exploration

Ergash Shaismatov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, announced on August 30, 2006, that the Uzbek government and an international consortium consisting of state-run Uzbekneftegaz, LUKoil Overseas, Petronas, Korea National Oil Corporation, and China National Petroleum Corporation signed a production sharing agreement to explore and develop oil and gas fields in the Aral Sea, saying, "The Aral Sea is largely unknown, but it holds a lot of promise in terms of finding oil and gas. There is risk, of course, but we believe in the success of this unique project." The consortium was created in September 2005.

Films featuring the Aral Sea

The tragedy of Aral coast was portrayed in the 1989 film, Psy ("Dogs"), by Soviet director, Dmitriy Svetozarov. The film was shot on location in the actual ghost town, showing scenes of abandoned buildings and scattered vessels.

Also in 1989 Kazakh director Rashid Nugmanov used the barren landscape around the Aral Sea for his movie The Needle.

In 1998 Dutch director Ben van Lieshout shot his film De Verstekeling ("The Stowaway") partly on the dry sea shore near Muynak.

In 1999 German filmmaker Joachim Tschirner has produced the documentary Der Aralsee for the German channel Arte.

In 2000 the MirrorMundo foundation produced a documentary film called Delta Blues about the problems arising from the drying up of the sea.

The 2004 film "Rebirth Island" (Russian: Остров Возрождения; Kazakh: Каладан келген кыз), about the life of Kazakh poet Zharaskan Abdirash, took place near the Aral Sea.

On 9–10 June 2007 BBC World broadcast a documentary called Back From The Brink? made by Borna Alikhani and Guy Creasey that showed some of the changes in the region since the introduction of the Aklak Dam.


  1. Satellite image, August 16, 2009 (click on "2009" link)
  2. Godwin O. P. Obasi, Challenges and Opportunities in Water Resource Management, World Meteorological Organization (Lecture at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society, February 11, 2003)
  3. Dust Storm, Aral Sea, NASA Earth Observatory image, June 30, 2001
  4. Water Actions - Uzbekistan -
  5. Uzbekistan, intl consortium ink deal on exploring Aral Sea ITAR-Tass

Further reading

External links

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