Once Upon a Time…
…there was a vast lake called the Aral Sea. A Central Asian oasis for centuries, it was the size of Ireland. Fertile farmlands fringed the shores with vineyards and orchards of apricots and pomegranates. Fishing was a prosperous industry and the catch, which included caviar sturgeon, was so plentiful it provided Russia with much of its fish. It was a favorite stop for travelers on the Ancient Silk Road.
No longer, this former sea is now a desert and the area is one of the world’s worst man-made disaster areas due to water management
Today the lake is split in two and almost gone
Earlier this year I saw what man has done to ravage the region. Saw the dried up crusty salt flats and surreal hulks of rusting fishing trawlers. I also saw where the water has gone, was appalled at the waste, and learned of deadly health consequences of this devastation.
Where did the water go?
Lenin had a vision of taming the arid Central Asian Steppe. The arid land would be tamed and changed. It would grow food, melons and cereals, and commercial crops, especially cotton, known as white gold. For this water was needed – lots of it – so a vast irrigation plan was devised and water was diverted from two major rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya. These both drained into the Aral Sea which straddled the borders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
toxic sand particles from the Aral Sea basin have been found in Norway, Japan, Greenland and in the blood of penguins in the South Pole.
Construction of the irrigation canals and redistribution of water resources began on a grand scale in the 1940’s. The results were staggering. The Kokand Canal in the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan, was built with forced labor in forty-five days. Today it is a showpiece lined with Central Asia’s ubiquitous poplar trees. However, most of the water is moved along in dilapidated open leaking channels. I was astonished to see how much of this precious water is spilled and lost.
The new era, Killer Dust storms
The result this water management is that much of the former Aral Sea is being reclassified as the #Aralkum Desert. It is prone to dust storms which carry a deadly cocktail of chemicals, including DDT, used when cotton production did not meet expectations.
The chemical runoff drained into the rivers now forms a crust on the sands which fuels the storms. Those still living in the region have TB, anemia, liver and kidney disease. Infant mortality rates have doubled.
However this affects far more than the local area, toxic sand particles from the Aral Sea basin have been found in Norway, Japan, Greenland and in the blood of penguins in the South Pole.
In April this year UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took a helicopter over the former Aral Sea. He called it a shocking disaster and said it was, “…a vivid testament to what happens when we mismanage our environment. Millions of people have lost their places. Their livelihoods were destroyed.”
Despite this, during his visit with leaders of the five former central Asian “Stans” little progress was made. All countries in the area have pressing water needs exacerbated by rising populations and global warming. There is some planting of the area with salt loving trees but the prognosis for the remainder of the Aral Sea is dismal. Once called Central Asia’s pearl, the demise of the Sea is a man-made catastrophe. TTFN
These two videos give a deeper understanding of what is happening, and the catastrophe.