A Kazakh Miracle, Mostly: The Partial Recovery of the Aral Sea

Aral Sea 2008The shrunken Aral Sea in Central Asia, product of a massive twentieth-century environmental disaster, has healed to a remarkable degree according to a recent update from the Kazakhstan government that describes the recovery as miraculous. Water is returning to the North Aral Sea, setting an example for future ecological recovery and reversal projects even as the still-devastated southern portion highlights the tragedy of irreversible environmental damage.

Back in the 1950's, the Soviet government diverted the Aral Sea's two tributary rivers into irrigation for cotton and rice crops. What followed, from the next decade and right up until the late 1990's, was an environmental disaster of historic and epic proportions. As the waters receded, they left behind two highly salted, much smaller bodies of water that could sustain only a single species of fish. In an ironic turn, the water diversion, meant to sustain agriculture in Central Asia, destroyed its fishing industry and even affected the area's climate.

That devastation prompted the Kok-Aral Dam project, an $85.8 million fix finished in 2005 and largely financed by the World Bank. It's part of a larger rescue operation costing a total of $260 million. Just one year after its completion, the dam exceeded expectations. A New York Times article from 2006 noted that,

In dozens of villages in the region, frigid green water now laps against long-abandoned harbors, and fishing vessels retrieved from open-air desert graves have been put back to sea.

The Aral Sea, which was once drained of 75 percent of its water, has this year taken on millions of cubic feet of new water years ahead of schedule, surpassing even the sunniest predictions made when a new dam was completed last summer. - New York Times

Today, the Kazakhstan government reports the water level has risen in the northern Aral Sea to the extent that it's generating hope for at least a partial recovery of the southern portion:

The 13 kilometer (8 mile) long dam separating the smaller North Aral Sea from its larger, saltier and more polluted southern part was completed in August 2005. Since completing the dam, Kazakhstan has been able to keep the water from the Syr Darya River in the North Aral Sea. Newly reconstructed, rebuilt, and rehabilitated waterworks along the Syr Darya are increasing the carrying capacity of the river, filling the Northern Aral Sea and benefiting farmers by irrigating their lands, although even those irrigated lands appear to have suffered from the salinity, as dust storms picked up the topsoil of the dry lakebed and scattered it throughout the area.

With the water level now higher in the northern part of the sea, a sluice can begin operating to allow excess water to flow into the parched South Aral Sea. - Environment News Service

A miracle? Sure, especially when you consider the promise of better health and the return to traditional fishing for the local community. But the victory is only a partial one, as the South Aral Sea remains incredibly salty and polluted. 

The U.S. Geological Survey's EarthShots will give you a visual idea of the amount of water lost, with its gallery of satellite images from 1964 through 1999. Such immense devastation hinders the possibility of full recovery:

[T]he scheme only saves a very small portion of what was once the world's fourth largest sea - the new surface area is less than half the total sea in 1960, and although some of the southern part remains studies have concluded some areas cannot be saved.

Practical problems also remain: for example the port of Aralsk is still stranded 25km above the shoreline. - Guardian

Aral sea 1989The journey of the Aral Sea, from fourth largest sea in the world to sixth to a recovery project surpassing expectations, stands as an environmental miracle and catastrophe at the same time. Even with the next phase of seabed revitalization and surrounding pasture rehabilitation, no one expects the entire Aral Sea region to return to its previous robust health completely. The loss sends a strong warning signal.

Harnessing human ingenuity to construct future multimillion-dollar rescue operations for environmental ruins may result in some sort of similar recovery three years later if we're very, very lucky.

On the other hand, we can protect bodies of water, forests and environmentally sensitive areas by farming and using them sustainably now, and avoid the costly recovery process and the partial victories later.

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  • Posted on Aug. 21, 2008. Listed in:

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