Water And Oceanography

Saving the Aral Sea



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"Saving the Aral Sea"
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Water, as a resource on the planet, has become a commodity much abused, since it is too often taken for granted. Many feats of modern engineering, involved in re-routing bodies of water, in order to use or consume the water immediately, have resulted in massive devastation to the ecosystems involved, which has also created damage to the larger ecosystem they are a part of.

To use an analogy, if the network river of fluid required by humans were diverted from one part of the human body to another, the part from which the fluid is diverted would either die or suffer damage, perhaps irreparable. The planet, as a living organism, responds similarly in its parts.

Formerly one of the largest lakes in Asia, the Aral Sea was once home to fleets of fishing boats that preyed upon sturgeon and other game fish. The volume of the Aral Sea keeps shrinking, however. With a volume loss of 80% since 1960, the region has lost 15,680 square miles of lake water. The fishing boats, which, in former times, were docked upon the lake, now rest on the dry land exposed as the waters receded, abandoned by their owners. Approximately 8,920 square miles of lake remain.

In 1960, the Aral Sea was 230 miles long, 175 miles wide and ranged from 55 feet to 223 feet in depth. Two rivers, the Amu Darya or Oxus River and the Syr Darya or Jaxartes River, flowed in to the Aral Sea.

A part of the U.S.S.R., the Soviet government envisioned a new use for the rivers that fed the Aral Sea, to benefit the Soviet people. By diverting the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, it would be possible to irrigate the desert nearby the Aral Sea in order to grow cotton. By removing the waters that fed the Aral Sea, the Sea began to shrink.

As the water receded, the sand, dirt and other sediments that formed the bottom of the Aral Sea were exposed to the air. With no plant life to hold it in place, dust storms began to occur in the space formerly occupied by the lake. The dust scattered far from its original location and mixed with the rain and snow that fell in other locations. Near Omsk, in far-off Siberia, orange, yellow and green snow began to fall. The source of the color in the snow was traced back to the dust storms at the Aral Sea.

After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the Aral Sea formed part of the border between the republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Even though the Aral Sea borders the two countries, the rivers that fed the Aral Sea cross through four countries (Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), complicating any possible solution to the shrinking Aral Sea. Considering politics within this region, the larger benefit to all that the Aral Sea represents might vanish as a possibility forever.



Between two and three thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians and Babylonians lived within more verdant ecosystems than can now be found in these regions. The Egyptians constantly affected the waterways of Egypt by diverting water from marshes and the Nile for building projects, including surrounding buildings with water to create "islands", a concept popular in ancient Egypt. Islands of mud were also created by the ancient Egyptians directly in waterways, artificially creating a new living space and redirecting the water. The Babylonians deliberately re-routed the Euphrates River so that it no longer followed a straight course, but curved multiple times, considerably reducing the flow of the river, in part, because they like looking at the water. They also siphoned water from the Euphrates into reservoirs no longer in existence.

After centuries of manipulation, the actions of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had an impact on their respective ecosystems, which became considerably drier. By not considering future generations while depleting natural resources that seemed unending, they eroded the ecosystems in which they resided. No doubt other factors over the centuries also contributed to the deterioration of their ecosystems, but their reckless consumption of a basic resource, water, had a serious impact on the ecosystems which their descendents inhabit.

The well-tended ongoing food source of the Aral Sea was traded for a temporary profit from a non-food crop. In so doing, an ecological disaster occurred.

Unless action is taken to correct the ecological disaster which is occurring in the Aral Sea, one of the largest lakes in Asia will be lost forever. Its loss will also have an impact on the rivers which once fed into it, which will force the inhabitants of this region to look for other sources of water. Since water is basic to the existence of human beings, a reversal of the conditions which created this disaster must be enacted soon, in order to avert other disasters, both human and ecological.





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More about this author: Peggy Barnett

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