Aral: How the Fourth Largest Sea Almost Disappeared and Why it’s a Warning to Modern America

A grounded fishing boat on the floor of the Aral Sea.

Introduction

As I travel by train from Southern Kazakhstan to Russia, I can see the dried, salty lake beds around the city of Aralsk. Aralsk used to be a hub of trade. It was situated on the coast of the landlocked Aral Sea and depended on the sea to provide food and to provide water to irrigate the crops. However, this sea has been devastated, caused directly by unsustainable farming projects. This city’s sad tale is not only interesting, it is an alarming case study that bodes poorly for parts of modern America.

Salty Fields Near Aralsk
The fields I saw from my train window were a little more salty around Aralsk.

For those of you who are not acutely aware of Kazakhstan’s geography and history (you’re in the majority here), Kazakhstan is an oil-rich, ex-Soviet Central Asian country. Although parts of the country are beautiful green verdant valleys, the west of the country is mainly a dusty desert that stretches for miles in all directions and neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are often equally arid. These three countries were once united by being part of the USSR, and it was the Soviets that had the bright idea of changing these arid parts of the world into agricultural paradises. To achieve this, the Soviet Union diverted water from two major rivers to the arid plains to promote agriculture and growth. However, the Soviets failed to account for the new lack of water flow into the Aral Sea, and this oversight had devastating effects.

Decline of the Aral Sea

The result was that the Aral Sea started declining in size, at first slowly, then rapidly. Despite the fact that the Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest in the world, by the year 2000, the Aral Sea started to disintegrate. The northern and southern parts of the sea had split in two and just one year later, the South Aral sea had split into an eastern and western part. In 2014, that eastern part had disappeared, being decimated by high evaporation rates and little inflows. The rest of the Aral Sea looked set to disappear altogether.

The Aral Sea, 1989 to 2014.
The Aral Sea, 1989 to 2014.

So, if reducing the water inflow into the landlocked sea (essentially a ginormous lake) was the primary cause of the demise of the Aral Sea, to save the lake, you must simply let the water flow back into the sea, right? Well, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. You may have heard some hippy guy or gal saying nature’s all in balance, and sometimes, like in the case of Aral, that’s true. The amount of water entering the lake and the water exiting the lake were always relatively equal and the sea was “in balance”. But, with a smaller sea, evaporation rates increased. That’s because shallower lakes are easier to warm up, which makes evaporation easier, which causes the lakes to become shallower and so forth. These feedback loops make combating human mistakes hard, and sometimes near impossible.

So what’s the significance of a body of water disappearing? Well, the disappearance of such a large body of water, equivalent to 40x the volume of the Great Lakes, has vast consequences. Let’s start with the immediate effects on local people from just the reduction in size of the sea. The fishing industry was completely destroyed. Not only did the sea reduce in size, but the salinity of the water increased by a magnitude of ten, which caused nearly all the fish to die. The town of Aralsk that was once a town on the sea became stranded, living 50 km from the sea. It’s fishing boats became victims living on the lake floor, which soon turned to desert.

A grounded fishing boat on the floor of the Aral Sea.
A grounded fishing boat on the floor of the Aral Sea.

Soon, the Aral Sea lost its ability to regulate the climate, and dust storms started to ravage the area, picking up all the salt from the former seabed. The health consequences were catastrophic. Tuberculosis, infections, parasites, typhus, typhoid, hepatitis, anaemia and asthma skyrocketed and child mortality soared to 75 children dying in every 1000. Over half of those children died of respiratory diseases due to the salt, minerals, and dust in the air. The people living in the region couldn’t even farm. As well as salt being dumped on vegetation, ground water dried up and as a result 40% of all vegetation died, allowing invasive desert species to take over.

As humans, we’re great at noticing dramatic, immediate, and local effects. Our ability to notice subtle changes across the world via a web of interrelated events is, however, much less evolved. Despite that, scientists have found this reduction in water level in a Kazakhstan water body is actually affecting all of us. The salt and dust travelled further than you’d think, dumping dust and salt on farmland in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and other countries, diminishing farming prospects for the whole region and decreasing agricultural output. Salt also landed on the snowy mountaintops of Kyrgyzstan, causing glaciers to melt and hastening climate change. In large part due to the Aral Sea’s diminishing size, regional temperatures rose 2°C in summer, which may not seem large until you realise that the Paris Agreement aims to limit the global average temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is a level that experts predict to be catastrophic. Winters in the region, on the other hand, got colder and longer. Contributing further to world climate change is the loss of a reflective body of water, with heat from the sun being trapped in the earth instead of being reflected out to space. You may not have realised it, but this disaster you’ve never even heard of will have changed the global temperature of the entire world.

The Aral Sea’s Turning Point

The chance to save the sea may have come, in the main, not from human intervention but from nature itself. As seas decrease in size, salinity goes up which lowers evaporation rates. The fact that some of the sea managed to slowly struggle on allowed humans to finally intervene. Despite regional governments promising to commit 1% of their GDP into a joint fund, that never transpired, due to politics, poverty and greed. Local people, feeling abandoned, had decided to make a painful decision. They created a dam to stop water flowing from the Northern Aral Sea into the Southern Aral Sea. The idea was to sacrifice the Southern Aral Sea so that the Northern Aral Sea could be saved and to stop precious water flowing into the arid steppe only to evaporate. The plan started to bear fruit, but then something awful happened, the dam burst. That’s what happens when you build a dam with only sand, mud and sticks at your disposal.

Nevertheless, this small action seemed to spark something in people’s minds. Saving the sea wasn’t impossible. The World Bank, who had been merely observing the catastrophe, gave the funds needed to a complete a proper dam. They also gave funds to mend the leaking Soviet-era irrigation canals that came off the two main rivers that fed the Aral Sea. The result? One of those rivers doubled in size and the sea rose by almost 4m in six months. One year later, the North Aral Sea had increased in size by a third and water started spilling into the South Aral Sea. The water, that was once 50 km from the city of Aralsk, is now just 15 km away. Animals, such as Asian foxes and donkeys, started to visit the area once more. The recovery in Aral is not complete, but it’s very much under way with the human hardships also diminishing. A fishing industry has been created once more, farming is easier, and anaemia prevalence is down by 65% due to better nutrition.

Satellite view of Aral Sea starting to replenish.
The Aral Sea is starting to refill.

How the Aral Sea Disaster May Replicate Itself in the US

Now, you may be asking, what on Earth has this got to do with “Modern America” as you stated in the title? Well, the USA is unique among many developed nations in having many people who doubt the existence of climate change and who are vehemently against environmentally-friendly policies that harm immediate business interests. The US is also unique in its excess, with the mantra “bigger is better” being a critical part of the nation’s psyche. Combine these two aspects of US culture and an abundance of unnaturally green cities in the desert and you can see where this is heading.

The possibility of a US water-related catastrophe is most evident when investigating the Colorado river. It’s a unique river in the aspect that the river runs completely dry due to tightly controlled allocation quotas between states. Perhaps nowhere is more vulnerable in this water ecosystem than Las Vegas.

Las Vegas lights and fountains can be seen from afar.
Las Vegas lights and fountains can be seen from afar.

Just like Aralsk, Las Vegas lies in an arid desert and depends largely on one water source. Las Vegas draws 90% of its water supply from Lake Mead, situated at the base of the much more famous Hoover Dam. However, just as the demands on the lake from human consumption and evaporation are as high as ever, the Colorado, the river that feeds the lake, just doesn’t have enough water to give. The Colorado is a 85–90% snow-melt-fed river, but with less snow on mountains worldwide every year, it’s clear to see why this situation is woefully unsustainable. In 1983, Lake Mead was at maximum capacity. Fast forward to 2019 and the lake is at around 40% capacity with the region now entering its 19th consecutive year of drought. With precipitation in California, Nevada, and nearby states predicted to reduce by 20–25% by the end of the century, it’s hard to see how the situation is going to improve.

Decline of Lake Mead Over Time
In the GIF above, it’s easy to visualise the decline of Lake Mead. Keen eyes will also notice the unstoppable spread of Las Vegas on the left.

Unlike Aralsk, Las Vegas doesn’t have a fishing industry it depends on. Las Vegas is known for something else. Tourism. When you think of Las Vegas, you can’t help to think of the strip lit up with lights and punctuated by fountains and palm trees. These lights are powered by the Hoover Dam. As of April 2019, the lake was at 1090 feet above sea level at near record lows. At 1050 feet above sea level, the dam can no longer product electricity. The fountains and palm trees require water from the lake. At 895 feet above sea level, the lake is too low to provide the city with water. Aralsk had a tourist industry too with people from across the USSR visiting the lake. That tourism dried up with the lake. Everybody thinks everything will be fine… until it isn’t. It’s easy to take industries like tourism for granted, but hotel owners in terrorist-hit Tunisia or earthquake-hit Nepal will tell you that there can be a gush of tourists one day, and a pitiful trickle the next. If we want to avoid Las Vegas turning into Nevada’s version of Detroit, authorities and people there need to act, and fast.

Just like the Aral Sea, we know that human intervention can help. Of course, if the Hoover Dam can’t produce electricity, the local authorities have the wealth to invest in solar or other electricity generation methods, even if that will cost billions. The problem with water supply and demand imbalance is a harder nut to crack, not least because it requires compromises from seven separate competing states. An inter-state drought resolution plan is being drafted up, though how ambitious it is remains to be seen. To create a temporary fix to Las Vegas’s water woes, the government is building a new water intake to allow them to take water from the lake at a depth below 895 feet above sea level, though this does nothing to resolve the long-term problems. Unlike Aralsk, there are no ageing Soviet-era canals that can be quickly fixed. As the water level retreats, there may be some solace in lower evaporation rates due to higher salinity, but it should be pointed out that an ever more salty lake costs ever more in water treatment. Damages caused by water salinity to things such as pipes is already at $350 million a year and is set to treble to over $1 billion per year. Lake Mead and the Colorado in general are on their last legs and it’s only with a major change in policy and water consumption rates, two things that have not been forthcoming, that the situation can be normalised. Hard, politically sensitive, and unpopular decisions are desperately needed.

The LA Times pointed out that the problem is further exacerbated by similar problems with other water bodies. That means that even if everyone used water more conservatively, more water would still be needed to be taken from Colorado as other water sources dry up. For example, the largest lake in California, the Salton Sea, is decreasing in size and increasing in salinity. Meaningful work to stop this decline is being hampered by arguments over whether state or federal funding should be used, striking parallels with squabbles over funding between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Jim Hanks, who works at the Imperial Irrigation District, described “crops ruined by toxic dust, an asthma epidemic, and a worsened international environmental crisis in our backyard”. If that reminds you of a disappearing sea in Kazakhstan, you are not alone. And yes, all the fish basically died in that lake too.

Whether it’s a decreasing availability of water, increases in wildfires, increasing hurricane strength and frequency, or deadzones in the sea as large as the State of Connecticut, the USA is not immune to environmental disasters. The US may have the wealth to cope with the aftermath of these in the short term, but ultimately these preventable disasters are going to drag on US growth and increasingly divert money away investment in business, schools, and health. So, it doesn’t really matter if you vote red or blue, or like spending money on the military or universal health care, because ultimately the available money pool on which to fund these ventures is affected by environmental damage equally.

Map of extent of Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
The 15,000 km squared dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area where fertiliser run-off has created algae blooms that starve the ocean of oxygen and kill all fish.

Lessons To Be Learned

The Aral Sea should teach us many lessons that can be accepted even if you don’t believe in well-documented climate change or its damaging effects.

Lesson 1

The first lesson is that unsustainable water management practices can have a dire effect on the environment, and that this effect on the environment can have tangibly damage the economy and people’s health and happiness. It’s a common misconception that environmental cost can’t be equated to “actual cost”. In economics, there’s a term for including the negative externalities into the price of goods, it’s called true cost economics. Investment in safeguarding the environment can actual safeguard the local economy, and therefore investments in protecting the environment can often be justified in purely financial terms.

The low-down: Even if you don’t give a crap about the planet, you should still support environmental protection.

Lesson 2

The second lesson is that reversing the effects of environmental damage isn’t easy, so act sooner. As mentioned in the article, feedback loops meant that the environmental damage was harder and harder to contain. Had governments had acted sooner, the damage could have been much more limited and the environmental damage reversed once the problem was evident. Instead, inaction led to thousands of children dying and economies across Central Asia diminishing whilst the problem got harder and harder to rectify.

The low-down: Sort out problems when the problems are small. Take action now.

Lesson 3

The initiative for the restoration of the sea didn’t come from big governments, it came local people. If you thought that these local people from a provincial backwater couldn’t solve the huge problem of a sea disappearing, you would be, at least in part, right. Their dam didn’t work, but they did become the catalyst for much greater change. It was their inspirational ideas, grit, determination and leadership that showed those with power and influence what had to be done. So, however small your efforts, the third lesson is that your ideas, grit, determination and leadership can allow greater change.

The low-down: Be the catalyst of change. Small cogs make the bigger cogs turn. Inspire others if you want change.

Lesson 4

The Aral Sea problem didn’t get solved partly due to the international nature of the problem. Every country wanted someone else to pay for more of it. Solving the problems of the Colorado is harder with competing interests from seven different states. The Salton Sea is isn’t getting funding because of disputes between federal and state legislatures arguing over who should pay the next tranche. In each one of these cases, the failure to work together and the desire to seek a deal more favourable to your own group than outsider groups has hampered a solution being found and, at times, caused irreparable harm to everyone.

The low-down: Sorting out problems may result in the need to quickly compromise on other interests that are less important than environmental decline.

Lesson 5

The immediate effects of the disappearing Aral Sea were obvious. There were no fish to fish and farmers and local people were unable to use the water as a resource. Later on, other effects started to be noticed. The vegetation and animals started to disappear. However, it took a much longer time (i.e. 50 years), to understand that diverting water from two rivers caused glaciers to melt in other countries. The environment is a vast ecosystem of interrelated processes and affecting one thing often creates ripple effects through that ecosystem, even if this is not immediately transparent. We are in an age of China-funded megaprojects where we routinely dam up rivers and estuaries, cut down entire forests for farmland, change the chemical balance of our soils and air and create tonnes and tonnes of plastic, an ever-present resource that doesn’t decompose. We simply don’t know what problems may arise in 50 or 100 years when we disrupt our planet in such huge ways. The final lesson is that we must evaluate the consequences of our actions much more fully, and respect the complexity and importance of the environment in a way that up to the present day, we never have.

The low-down: Don’t overestimate your ability to underestimate environmental damage.

Afterword

If you have found this article compelling at propelling forward the need to protect and care for our environment, whatever your views on climate change, then share this with some of your friends and make the world a better place.

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