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» Aral Sea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Before the 1960s, fishing in Central Asia's Aral Sea was an important resource for surrounding communities. When the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea were diverted to irrigate cotton and other crops, many more consequences than the loss of fishing resulted.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviet Union began to divert water from the two major rivers in Central Asia—Amu Darya and Syr Darya—that flow into the Aral Sea to irrigate millions of acres of cotton and rice farms. Consequently, the volume of the Aral Sea has reduced from more than 700 cubic kilometers in 1960 to 75 cubic kilometers in 2007.

As the water levels dropped, the water salinity increased. One liter of Aral water once had 14 grams of salt, but in 2007, the same volume had more than 100 grams—twice the salinity of the ocean.

Map of the featured area.

Weather changed as the Aral Sea diminished. The smaller volume of water could store less energy, and winters in central Asia have become colder and longer while summers have become hotter and shorter.

Dust storms also became a problem. As the shoreline retreated, salty soil remained on the exposed lakebed. Besides salt, pesticides from farming had also ended up in the Aral Sea, which made dust storms that carried an estimated 68 million kilograms of exposed soil up to 800 kilometers away even more damaging. This air pollution has caused widespread nutritional and respiratory ailments.

Because of the drastically lowered water levels, cities once on the Aral Sea's coast are now located over 100 kilometers from the Sea. This drastic change in location was extremely difficult for the many communities where fishing had been the main source of income. Not only were the fishermen affected, but also the factory workers who canned the fish. Numerous communities had depended completely on fishing.

Increased distance from shore and decreased territory for fish weren't the only problems fishermen faced. The increased salinity contributed to the loss of many fish species—the only species of fish that swam in the Aral in the early 2000s was a special breed of flounder that could tolerate the salt. Along with the fish, many species of birds, animals, insects, and plants disappeared.

The Soviet Union's disintegration in 1991 led to the establishment of two independent countries that border the Aral Sea—Kazakhstan (containing the North Aral Sea) and Uzbekistan (containing the southern portions of the Aral Sea). The countries jointly work toward managing the main water resources of Central Asia.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan began a $260 million rescue program that reduced irrigation and made the canals in its country more efficient at conserving the water from the Syr Darya. The country also completed a dam in 2005 to prevent water from flowing into the southern end of the Aral Sea. With the increase in water level, Kazakhstan has had encouraging results. Many of the old species of fish that used to swim in the Aral Sea have been restored, along with other animals formerly living along the shore.

Although the entire region around the Aral Sea suffered when it dried up, the city of Aralsk suffered more than most because at one time, most of the city's jobs revolved around its fishing port off the North Aral Sea. Before the irrigation canals were created, the city was right on the shore of the Sea, but eventually, 91 kilometers separated the city from the shore. Fishing ceased because even if fish were caught, they would spoil before they got to Aralsk for canning and shipping.

After the installation of the dam, water levels began to rise. Now, the city is about 13 kilometers away from shore and fishing has again become productive. With the return of higher water levels in the North Aral Sea, the community of Aralsk has had measurable improvements in health and nutrition.

Although using the dam to keep most of the water from the Syr Darya in the North Aral Sea has had beneficial results in Kazakhstan, it means the water in the south is even more depleted.

The Uzbekistanian economy is largely based on agriculture. The Amu Darya, which flows through Uzbekistan into the South Aral Sea, is used now more than ever to irrigate crops. Although improvements in irrigation efficiency could greatly reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation, these infrastructure changes have not been a high priority.

While Uzbekistan is nearly twice as populous as Kazakhstan, its per capita GDP is less than a quarter of Kazakhstan's. Uzbekistan has not been able to find the investment required to fix leaks and cover the extensive canal system to prevent water loss and evaporation.

One Uzbek town, Muynak, was once located on the Sea's shore and had an active fishing industry. Muynak is now far from the Sea. Its distance to the Sea changes with the variable rainfall, but it's not likely to return to being a lakeshore community.

Uzbekistan is moving in a different direction from Kazakhstan to improve its economy. Now that the Aral Sea bed is accessible, Uzbekistan plans to drill for oil.