Nautilus reports: A sliver here, a spot there. That’s all the water that’s left of the great Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world by surface area. Recent images of the dry Aral Sea show camels sheltering from the sun beside the rusting husks of fishing boats, perched permanently on the dried-up lakebed. The extreme transformation took all of 50 years.
The Aral Sea wasn’t historically fragile. Humans have been using the saltwater lake for at least 3,000 years, the water level only fluctuating by about four meters during the 300 years prior to 1960. And the water provided for neighboring communities, offering a sustainable and profitable way of life for early 20th-century fishermen who caught carp, pike, and perch in numbers great enough to export them widely. Fish were so abundant that Aralsk fishermen, when called upon by Soviet leader Lenin, were able to load up 14 train cars bound for starved regions of the Soviet Union with fresh Aral Sea fish in October of 1921.
Around 1960 the land began to change. The erstwhile Soviet Union expanded irrigation projects aimed at increasing the yield of profitable cotton. The crop’s thirst for the freshwater in the rivers replenishing the Aral Sea meant less water ended up in the lake. Over time, one of the rivers — the Amu Darya — stopped making it to the lake. And as the water depleted, the salt in the lake’s water became more concentrated. Salinity went up, killing off several fish species that couldn’t cope in the changing environment. Now the fishermen can’t make a living, and those not impoverished by decreasing opportunities in the barren land can only find continuous work in feeding, growing, and picking cotton or other water-guzzling crops. The dry basin itself, doused with farming chemicals and prone to rise up in dust storms, threatens the health of any who live nearby. And since Uzbekistan is today the second-biggest cotton exporter in the world, the Aral Sea has little hope of recovering its former size. [Continue reading…]