Sixty years ago my school atlas showed the Aral Sea as a large blue blodge in central Asia. Straddling the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it was the fourth-largest fresh water lake in the world, a third the size of the United Kingdom.
Now there’s little left – just a very large puddle – and it’s as though a plug was pulled and it drained away. For centuries it was a very large inland sea, fed by two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, from the south.
It was fresh water, with a well-established fishing industry, and large steamers providing trade and jobs, and linking communities. The sea was big enough to help cool summer temperatures and delay the cold in winter, as well as increasing local rainfall.
Now the shipping is high and dry next to the abandoned towns that they once served, and the water that is left is six times more salty than the open ocean. There’s less rainfall and the summers are hotter and the winters colder.
None of this would have happened if the Soviet government hadn’t tried to rival the United States as the world’s leading cotton grower. To do this they needed to irrigate the parched land, and so they diverted the rivers into 1,000 kilometre-long canals so that very little entered the Aral Sea. Within decades it shrank to less than a tenth of its historical size and the damage was done.
Unfortunately, most of the canals weren’t lined, so much of the water soaked away or evaporated, making the problem even worse. Now much of the ground water is contaminated with the pesticides and fertilisers that are essential for large-scale cotton growing. Birth defects in animals and humans are not uncommon.
Despite this greed and lack of respect for the natural environment, Uzbekistan couldn’t match the mechanised and chemically-encouraged cotton from the US, particularly as there the farmers receive more than three billion dollars of subsidy a year, and 70 per cent of the exports are priced at well below production costs.
To become the sixth largest producer of cotton, and the second largest exporter, Uzbekistan has had to extinguish a natural sea, destroy local communities, change the climate and put the health of local people at risk.
We also share the blame because as well as expecting cheap food and fuel we also demand inexpensive clothes that are changed and discarded as fashion dictates.
The Aral Sea is an excellent example of what happens when our ignorant species puts self-interest before a proper understanding of the workings of our only support system – the natural environment.