The Aral Sea Crisis

Once a bustling fishing community and sea port, the city of Muynak (also spelled Moynaq) in western Uzbekistan is now home to only a few thousand residents. (Photo: Neil Banas)

“You cannot fill the Aral with Tears.” – Muhammad Salikh –

By Jangul Erlon-Baurjan

When it was the fourth largest body of inland water in the world, the Aral Sea fed life into Central Asia and supported three-quarters of its population. It was the core of the region, geographically and culturally.[1] Today, the Aral is a tenth of its former size; it has shrunk from the heart of a region to a graveyard of dust, rusted ships, and ambitious dreams of white and gold. To understand the significance of the crisis, among the worst ecological disasters of the twentieth century, one must first understand the special relationship between Central Asia and the Aral.

The ship graveyard of Muynak. The Aral Sea was once one of the four largest lakes in the world. Today, less than 10 percent of it remains.

From the Pamir and Tien Shan Mountain Ranges, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers flow through the post-soviet republics of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — and feed into the Aral. Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, wrote, “Central Asia is deserts and more deserts, fields of brown weathered stones, the heat from the sun above, sandstorms…. But the world of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is different. Arable fields stretch along both rivers, abundant orchards; everywhere profusions of nut trees, apple trees, fig trees, palms, pomegranates…[2]

In the fertile valleys of oases between the two rivers, some of the most complex hydraulic societies of their times arose. This is where cosmopolitan cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan, became cultural centers of the world; where scholars like Al-Biruni and Ibn Sina philosophized about Islam and the heavenly bodies. It’s where the ancient Silk Road brought the greatest civilizations, ideas, and goods of its times together, so they could intermingle.

The 12th-century Kalon Minaret, also known as the Tower of Death, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Photo: Yang Jing)

But outside the little world between the Syr and Amu Darya, amidst the open grasslands and rolling steppes, lies an entirely different world. Nomads roamed with their herds and occasionally conquered their settled neighbors. The great dichotomy between settlers and nomads made sense in Central Asia, where water, or the lack thereof, shaped life in every real and possible way. Millennia later, water from the Aral and its rivers still shapes the region, though differently than it did before.

The 12th-century Kalon Minaret, also known as the Tower of Death, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Photo: Yang Jing)

In the 1950s, Moscow decided to divert water from the Amu and Syr Darya for cotton cultivation. Cotton, or ‘white gold,’ would become a part of the social fabric of Central Asia, for better or worse. When it was time to pick the cotton, schools and institutes closed so that everyone, from the young to the very old, could be in the fields. Langston Hughes, the American poet famous for his part in the Harlem Renaissance, allowed these cotton collectives in Uzbekistan to remind him of the cotton plantations of the South, back home. Unbeknownst to him, as the cotton quotas sent from the capital rose each year, productivity gradually decreased. The land, along with its people, withered away — poisoned by pesticides and defoliants.

The high concentrations of salt and toxic chemicals in the land and water have led to a number of serious health and environmental consequences. The consequences are most pronounced south of the Aral, in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Kapuscinski further writes, “It is a sad settlement — Muynak. It once lay in the spot where the beautiful life-giving Amu Darya flowed into the Aral Sea, an extraordinary sea in the heart of a great desert. Today, there is neither river nor sea. In the town the vegetation has withered; the dogs have died. Half the residents have left, and those who stayed have nowhere else to go. They do not work, for they are fishermen, and there are no fish… They are Karakalpaks.[3]

Fishing was once a central part of the region’s economy. The Soviet government’s diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate extensive cotton fields across the Central Asian plain, however, caused much of the Aral Lake to dry up, thus leaving the area susceptible to economic collapse. (Photo: Martijn Munneke)

While the consequences of massive water diversions had been predicted by Soviet scientists as early as 1927, short-term economic expediency outweighed long-term concerns. The Aral Crisis, along with Chernobyl, is one of the more visible legacies of the Soviet Union. To the people of Central Asia, the crisis revealed deep injustices within the command economy, exemplified by “the problem of putting economic expediency before human lives,” in Chingiz Aitmatov’s turn of phrase. These white golden fields didn’t lift the Soviet Union up for very long. It is said best by Kapuscinski:

The golden land of Uzbekistan, which was first cloaked in the white of cotton, was now glazed over with a lustrous crust of white salt. But one doesn’t have to study the ground. When the wind blows, one can taste the salt on one’s lips, on one’s tongue. It stings the eyes (ibid).

Against the backdrop of the political and economic upheavals of the late 1980s, Russian and Central Asian journalists began to take an interest in the causes of the Aral’s desiccation. One such journalist, Grigorii Reznichenko, realized that the crisis in Nukus, the capital of Qaraqalpaqstan, implicated generations of Soviet leaders; he writes:

Cotton has brought people no happiness. And the town offers nothing. Don’t look for water pipes here, don’t ask about central heating, gas, don’t count on any other conveniences or even insignificant social welfare. There’s none of that here. And never has been. Not at that time when Stalin announced that in our country socialism had conquered, nor at that time when Khrushchev promised the generation of the 60s that they would live under Communism. Socialism did not even come here when Brezhnev declared that it was developed and real.[4]

Muynak’s ship graveyard. (Photo: Falneur Harris)

When the USSR dissolved, the newly independent states of Central Asia inherited the Aral Sea Crisis. They’ve made real efforts to mitigate the effects of decades of mismanagement. In a speech, the late president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, said, “The problem is that our destiny was controlled by others. Now the time has come for us to take a serious approach to the task … the fate of the Aral is inseparably linked to the fate of the independent republics of Turkestan.[5]

While the entire Aral can never be fully restored, efficient water management could do much good. Kazakhstan’s Kokaral Dam has brought modest improvements to the condition of the North Aral Sea and, hopefully, started the process of local people making amends for the mistakes of outsiders.

Completed in 2005, the Kokaral Dam was constructed in an effort to conserve the dwindling waters of the Syr Darya river and attempt to revive the damaged ecology of the North Aral Sea.


*Click here for more information restoration efforts in the Aral Sea region.

[1] Allison, Roy and Lena Jonson, eds. 2001. Central Asian Security: The New International Context. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.

[2] Kapuscinski, Ryszard.1994. Imperium. Vintage Books.

[3] Kapuscinski, Ryszard, ‘Imperium,’ Vintage Books,1994, pp.261- 262.

[4] Grigorii Ivanovich Reznichenko, ‘My znaem, chto nyne lezhit na vesakh’, Novyi mir,
1989, pp. 182–94 (p. 193).

[5] Pravda Vostoka, December 22, 1992.