The Aral sea sits between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and was once the fourth largest sea in the world. Most people today haven't even heard of it. What was a 68,000 square kilometer sea, and thriving fishing industry, is now a sea that is 10 % of its original size, too salty and polluted to support fish. This large sea is now considered to be three lakes.
The Aral Sea was once a popular resort destination for family vacations, and recreation. This used to be a sea thriving with fish. There used to be marshes teaming with wildlife along some shores, sandy beaches on others. The Aral Sea, and surrounding area was so teaming with life, it was often compared to many places in Africa for terms of biodiversity. When the sea began to die, people, no longer able to make their livelihood on the fisheries, lost their homes, and their ways of life, but that wasn't the worst of it.
The shoreline is now up to 150 kilometers from where it once was in some areas, the water depth has dropped by about 17 meters, and climate change has been reported. So what happened?
Two rivers used to flow into the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, bringing with them as much water as the Nile carries. Plans for an intensive agriculture system changed all this. The Aral seas road to obscurity began in the 1960's when water was diverted to irrigate farm land. Cotton production was the name of the game. Millions of liters of water which would normally replenish the sea was used to grow crops in the surrounding desert regions. Today the two rivers are often so drained that they are completely dry by the time they get to the Aral Sea.
Of all the crops grown, grain, melons, and so forth, the largest industry was cotton production. The demand for cotton was high, not only within the area, but for exportation purposes too. Cotton was referred to as "white gold".
Without new water entering the Aral, it began to shrink, becoming more and more salty every year, fish were washing ashore in mass numbers, unable to live in the salty conditions. The sea was also becoming a center for concentrated pollution. This pollution came from several sources, one being weapons testing, but additionally there was fertilizer run off and pesticides.
Any time pollution increases in an area, so too do human health problems. This is particularly the case when the concern is water pollution. It is difficult to determine just how many health problems are due to the pollution in the water, of course such statistics are hard to prove, but it has been seen that mortality rates and rates of health problems have increased in the area since the late 1960's.
Not just fish and people suffered. Many of the flora and fauna died out. The Bukhara deer which once flourished in the area now numbers below 500. Certainly some species of wildlife were lost in the area if not altogether.
Can we fix this?
Actions have been taken to restore some of the damage done, it has been proven that most of the canals and aqueducts are not in good condition and much water is lost before it even reaches the fields, thus more water is taken than is needed. In 2003 a dam was constructed to help retain water in the North part of the sea, which has helped.
In the grand scheme everyone who buys cotton is contributing to this problem unless they know where it came from, and can be certain it did not come from Uzbekistan. Cotton being the prime export for the region, and the biggest contributor of the problem.
The Aral Sea will never be as it was, too much has been lost, but we can try to repair some of the damage. As our population grows, we continue to demand things, but seldom take the time to look at where those things come from. It is time to look.