Desiccation of the Aral Sea

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The demise of the Aral Sea, described by Science magazine in 1999 as “perhaps the most notorious ecological catastrophe of human making,” was a long term process. From 1939 with the opening of the Great Fergana Canal (link) through the early 1960s when the Karakum Canal was completed, massive quantities of water were diverted from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, the two rivers running into the Aral Sea, to irrigate the ever-expanding cotton fields of Soviet Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The mentality behind these projects was exemplified in a speech to the Uzbek Communist Party’s central committee by its first secretary, Usman Iusupov, in 1939. Iusupov stated, “We cannot be content with the fact that the Amu Darya, abounding in water, deposits it without benefit into the Aral Sea while our Samarkand and Bukhara oblast lands are insufficiently irrigated. Our task is to bridle the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, firmly grasp them in our hands, and make their water serve the interests of socialism, the growth of the material level of the population, and the development of the country.”

Soviet scientists first noticed signs of aridization in the eastern part of the Amu Darya delta in the late 1950s. By 1970, the coast of the Aral Sea had retreated ten kilometers from the former seaport of Muynak. By 1980, it was 40 kilometers away, and by 1995, 70 kilometers across what had become a saline wasteland. Between 1960 and 1995 the surface area of the Aral had declined from 64,500 square kilometers to less than 30,000, and the sea had become three separate highly saline lakes. Commercial fishing which had employed 3,000 people in the late 1960s, ceased in 1982.

In the 1970s, Soviet scientists worked on a plan to divert Siberian rivers southwards to help irrigate Central Asian lands, but this project was shelved after it had provoked intense opposition from Russian intellectuals and party officials. The catastrophic effects of the Aral Sea’s desiccation became apparent under Gorbachev. Dust storms carried soil from the dried out seabed that contained sulfates, phosphates, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other toxic substances found in fertilizers and pesticides across a wide swathe of territory. Soaring rates of cancer, liver ailments, and other diseases were recorded in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpak Autonomous Republic. The rate of infant mortality in Karakalpak — 60/1000 live births in the late 1980s — was the highest in the Soviet Union.

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