The Shrinking Of The Aral Sea

A shipwreck in the Aral Sea that has been exposed by the sea's drying.
  • Since the 1960s, the Aral Sea has been shrinking due to Soviet irrigation projects that diverted the rivers that drained into this sea.
  • Vast deserts have been left behind where the sea once was, triggering social, environmental, and economic problems in the region.
  • To avoid water loss from the Aral Sea, the quality of the irrigation canals needs to be improved.

Where Is The Aral Sea?

A map depicting the historic size of the Aral Sea with its current size superimposed. Today, only the North Aral Sea and South Aral Sea portions remain.

The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world, covering an area of 68,000 km2. It is located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south. Since the 1960s, the Aral Sea has been shrinking due to Soviet irrigation projects that diverted the rivers that drained into this sea.

The Shrinking Of The Aral Sea

Desert lands once part of the Aral Sea near Urga village, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. Image credit: Homo Cosmicos/Shutterstock

During the 1960s, the Soviets decided to divert the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya that fed the Aral Sea with their waters. The two rivers were diverted to provide water for irrigation as the government wanted to boost the growth of cotton, cereals, melons, and rice on lands that are now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The construction of irrigation canals began in the 1940s. By 1960, the amount of water that was going to the land instead of the lake was approximately 4.8 cubic meters per year. From 1961 to 1970, the average decrease of water per year was about 7.9 cubic meters. In the 1970s, the shrink went up nearly thrice as the average drop per year was 20 cubic meters. In the 1980s, the average decline per year was 31 cubic meters.

In 1987, the sea divided into two different bodies of water: the North and South Aral Seas. By 1998, the surface of the sea had shrunk by about 60% and the volume by 80%. In that year, the Aral Sea was covering an area of 28,687 km2, down from its size of 68,000 km2 in 1960. In 2004, the sea covered a surface area of about 17,160 km2. By breaking off into smaller parts, vast deserts have been left behind where the sea once was, triggering social, environmental, and economic problems in the region. There have been restoration efforts in the northern section of the Aral Sea with the aim of restoring the fishing industry.

Possible Solutions

Satellite image of the Aral Sea. Image credit: Kitnha/Shutterstock

To avoid water loss from the Aral Sea, the quality of the irrigation canals needs to be improved. Dams should also be installed to help collect water in the sea. Low-cost desalination techniques have to be adopted to reduce soil salinization in the area. Water from the Volga and Ob rivers could be redirected to feed the Aral Sea to restore its water levels. Draining water into the sea by pumping the Caspian Sea can be done by the use of a pipeline. 

The decline of the Aral Sea is an environmental disaster. The reason for this is because the once significant fishing industry that operated out of the Aral Sea has deteriorated and the environment polluted, causing severe unemployment and health problems. Though restoration efforts are underway, the Aral Sea will likely never return to its formal glory. 

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