The Aral Sea, on the borders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the world’s fourth-largest lake covering more than 26,000 square miles. Then the irrigation policies of Soviet Russia diverted the flow of the two rivers flowing into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya to irrigate land for cotton production.
The result has been described as the world’s greatest ecological disaster.
The once-mighty Aral Sea was reduced to a thin sliver of water on its western edge. The Eastern Aral Sea dried up completely and now, by a supreme irony is called the Aralkum Desert.
As water inflows decreased so the salinity of the water increased to a point where the majority of its fish died. It was also now too saline to use for irrigation of the fields and so the area’s two major industries, fishing and farming, died along with the Aral Sea.
Left behind were ghost towns, disused factories and abandoned fishing vessels.
Then a World Bank-funded project repaired dykes along the Kazakh side of the Aral Sea and built an eight-mile dam, the Kokaral Dam, to stop the loss of water which spilled away into the dried lake bed and evaporated. Experts predicted that it would take between four and ten years before any significant progress was achieved.
Instead, in just seven months the water level rose by over 11 feet. The effect was dramatic. As salinity levels fell, fish returned. The allowed catch has risen by 600 per cent between 2006 and 2018. Once again farms are flourishing as the water can now be used for irrigation.
A second World Bank initiative has begun to restore delta and wetland habitats on the Uzbek side of the Aral Sea. Another project to increase again the height of the Kokaral Dam is currently stuck in bureaucratic malaise. Still what has been done so far does show that ecology, wrecked by humans can be at least partially restored.
The Aral Sea will never again be returned to its former glory but at least now there is some hope for the fishing and farming villages around its shores.