In the 1940s, ambitious Soviet planners embarked on a massive water program designed to make the desert bloom. It was decided that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. By 1960, between 20 and 60 cubic kilometres of water were going each year to the land instead of the sea. With most of the sea's water supply gone, the Aral Sea began to shrink. From 1961 to 1970, the Aral's sea level fell at an average of 20 cm a year; in the 1970s, the average rate nearly tripled to 50–60 centimetres per year, and by the 1980s it continued to drop, now with a mean of 80–90 centimetres each year. By 2007, the Aral sea had declined to 10% of its original size.
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The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, was devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores become ship graveyards. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years. Poisonous dust storms kicked up by strong winds across the dried and polluted seabed give rise to a multitude of chronic and acute illnesses among the few residents who have chosen to remain, most of them ethnic Karakalpaks, and weather unmoderated by the sea now buffets the town with hotter-than-normal summers and colder-than-normal winters.
When the Aral Sea began to shoal, a 20-kilometer canal was dug. But it was useless. The sea went even further, the graveyard of ships grew around the city, the airport was closed, some fishermen went away, some died, some men were engaged in trade, some - in breeding camels.
There is an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea. In 2005, the Kokaral Dam was built to control the inflow of waters coming from the Syr Darya. Thanks to the dam the level of water has rose by 24 meter in 2008. However, the outlook for the remnants of the South Aral Sea remains bleak.
Fisherman on the Aral Sea in 1952, at the port town of Muynak, Uzbekistan. Photo credit
Aral sea in 1989 and 2008
Aral Sea from space, August 1985
Aral Sea from space, 1997
Aral Sea from space, August 2009. The black line shows the lake shore ca. 1960.
Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea