Aral: From Sea to Desert, to Sea?


“Water is the best of all things.” – Pindar

It’s one of the world’s worst sea-related ecological disasters, laying waste to thousands of miles of shoreline and ruining habitats and livelihoods on a truly terrifying scale – but suddenly, there’s new hope for recovery. No, nothing to do with this. Think bigger.

As recently as the 1960s, the Aral Sea of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was one of the world’s greatest lakes, covering a whopping 26,000 square miles. Then along came a Soviet government keen to industrialize by any means necessary. The water was diverted for cotton farm irrigation, salinity soared, pollution festered (pesticides, weapons testing, you name it), and the sea gave way to a desert, eerily dotted with stranded boats and fishing stations that hint at the terrible human impact on the region’s population. It’s environmental change so profound it’s even upset the local climate.


How do you recover from that? Answer: with a government looking to erase the damage done by Soviet rule, supported by the coffers of the World Bank. The North Aral (above at top, one of the three main remnants of the once mighty whole) was dammed in 2005, and now life is returning – most importantly, the fish. They’re critical to boost the economy and bring the money that’s badly needed for further redevelopment. How much damage can be undone, only time will tell – and while the North Aral is gradually (painfully) expanding outwards again, the southern sea remnants are just years away from dying up completely. Recovery? Maybe, but not in our lifetime.

Images: martijn.munneke and NASA Goddard Photo & Video

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.