News FocusARAL SEA

Coming to Grips With the Aral Sea's Grim Legacy

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  02 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5411, pp. 30-33
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5411.30

This article has a correction. Please see:

There's no undoing this sea's demise, perhaps the most notorious ecological catastrophe of human making. But scientists are hoping to soften the impact

NUKUS, UZBEKISTAN—Standing on the roof of the 10-story Uzbek Academy of Sciences (UAS) building, Yusup Kamalov has watched, more times than he would care to remember, the ground-hugging, dirty gray clouds that churn across the salt-streaked desert beyond the city's outskirts. Sometimes the chubby-cheeked engineer has to beat it indoors before one of these dust storms barrels into Nukus. The screaming grit blots out the bronze statue of famed 15th-century Uzbek astronomer Mirzo Ulugbek in front of the academy's local headquarters and chokes anyone unlucky enough to be caught outdoors.

The drowning desert.

As the Aral shrinks, stranding boats, inefficient irrigation from the Darya rivers is blighting the land.


Dust storms are common in deserts, but here in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, a province in the northwestern corner of Uzbekistan, they may also be harbingers of sickness and death. After decades of zealous Soviet efforts to yoke a huge swath of central Asia to the single-minded task of growing cotton, the locals are reaping an ill wind. It carries sulfates, phosphates, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and their ilk—fertilizers and pesticides whipped up from the bare floor of the shriveled Aral Sea and the poisoned land around it. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the death rate from respiratory illnesses in Karakalpakstan—167 per 100,000 people in 1993—is among the world's highest. “The level of health and the quality of life are profoundly poor, and deteriorating,” says Ian Small, country manager for Doctors Without Borders (DWB), a medical relief agency (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières) that has logged high rates of anemia among Karakalpaks. “It is a tragic humanitarian disaster.”

The toxic dust storms are just one symptom of the environmental and social catastrophe that is engulfing this region. After decades of wanton irrigation, once-fertile fields produce next to nothing. And the shrinkage of the Aral Sea from a vast body of fresh water teeming with fish to a salty remnant has marooned ports and killed the fishing industry. Even local officials are resigned to the sea's eventual breakup: “We will be witnesses to the disappearance of the Aral Sea,” says Karakalpak health minister Damir Babanazarov.

Ignored by Soviet planners for decades, the 35 million people who live in the Aral Sea's watershed have finally caught the attention of the rest of the world. A major campaign, spearheaded by the World Bank and the UNDP, is under way to improve the region's drinking water, revamp its agricultural practices, and sustain its biodiversity. The goal is not to turn back the clock and restore the Aral to its former grandeur. Rather, the massive cash infusion is meant to assuage the disaster's social consequences and avert a scramble—or even a war—over water among the fledgling democracies in central Asia.

Western water managers are hoping to learn lessons of their own. Central Asia is “attempting to implement many of the sustainable [agricultural] practices that the rest of the world is grappling with,” says Daene McKinney of the University of Texas's Center for Research in Water Resources in Austin. Steps to mitigate the Aral's problems, he says, “can teach us many things” about water management in the United States.

White gold. The Aral region's plight traces its roots to the early days of the Soviet Union, when communist authorities hatched a plan to grow all the cotton the budding superpower would need by irrigating vast plains in central Asia. The Soviets revved up cotton production in the mid-1920s, then 30 years later began carving hundreds of kilometers of unlined canals from the Aral's two tributaries—the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya —into the surrounding desert to nourish new cotton fields. The strategy paid dividends: The Soviet Union soon joined China and the United States as the world's leading cotton exporters. But by the early 1960s, the first signs of trouble began to appear: The Aral Sea was unmistakably shrinking as irrigation projects sucked billions of liters of water from its feeder rivers.

By now what was the world's fourth largest lake, slightly bigger than Huron, has lost 80% of its volume over the last 4 decades, exposing 3.6 million hectares of seabed. Evaporation and agricultural runoff have left much of the Aral saltier than the ocean, which in turn has killed off most fish. (All 24 of the Aral's native species have long since perished.) The collapse of the Aral's fisheries and other economic tribulations have displaced as many as 100,000 people, says Small. “We view the Aral situation as a real-life example of how unsustainable planning can cause severe and irreparable damage,” McKinney says.

One of the grimmest spots is Muynak, the site of a former cannery. Today, rusting hulks of fishing boats litter the sand on the town's northern fringe, because the Aral's shores have shifted 70 kilometers to the north and are still receding. In the early 1980s, “we could still take a bus a few kilometers from Muynak to go swimming at the shore and watch the blue seagulls,” recalls DWB's Valeria Slabolitskaya. Today, scores of unemployed people laze around on the dusty streets. Just outside town, says Small, “you can drive for kilometers and see nothing but thick white salt. It looks like snow.”

Not even “white gold,” as Soviet officials called central Asian cotton, can bail out the troubled region. Wasteful irrigation schemes that allowed farmers unlimited water have raised the water table, blocking drainage and clogging the fields with as much as 700 tons of salt per hectare, says Kamalov. Although Uzbek scientists have developed salt-resistant cultivars that require half as much water to grow as normal cotton, farmers have resisted planting them. “People have said, ‘If we introduce this new cotton, the authorities will not give us water,’ “says Kalbai Myrzambetov of the UAS's Institute of Bioecology in Nukus.

Cotton yields continue to plummet as more and more hectares are blighted by salt. Today's yields in Uzbekistan, about 2 tons per hectare, are less than a third of those in Israel, a country with a similarly arid climate, says biologist Saparbai Kabulov of the Institute of Bioecology. The rising water table has also tainted drinking water supplies. “We have not a single hectare in which the water is fresh,” he says. After rainstorms in springtime, adds Kamalov, “that's when the water is the worst. We can't drink tea. It tastes bad.”

Going, going … After first acknowledging the ecological disaster during glasnost in the mid-1980s, the Soviets drafted grand plans for saving the imperiled Aral, perhaps by diverting water southward from Siberian rivers. Those plans were never realized, and after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, five new countries inherited the disaster. Since then, international organizations have tried to forge a game plan for helping central Asia tackle the legacy of Soviet-style cotton production.

The international community is now rallying around a series of initiatives approved last year, in which the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF)—an agency managed by the World Bank and the United Nations that funds projects on water, biodiversity, and other environmental issues in developing countries—and several other organizations plan to spend $600 million through 2002 to address a panoply of Aral problems. A large chunk of the money is for engineering projects to purify drinking water and upgrade irrigation and drainage systems throughout the Syr Darya- Amu Darya basin. The stakes are high: According to a 1997 World Bank report, if salt continues to leach into the fields and the water supply, much of the land “will be unfit for irrigated agriculture within a few decades” and the water will become undrinkable. “The economic, environmental, and social impacts would be incalculable,” the report states.

As for the Aral Sea itself, the prospects are grim. In theory, enough fresh water flows through the Aral's watershed to replenish the sea, says Kamalov. But experts say that restoring the sea to about twice its current size—enough to sustain a diverse aquatic ecosystem—would require stopping all irrigation from the two Daryas for the next half-century. “There is no way to get the requisite water without destroying the countries' economies,” says Aral expert Philip Micklin of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Experts hope that constricting the massive leaks from the region's irrigation network will result in less water being siphoned from the Darya rivers and thus greater inflows to the Aral. More efficient irrigation should also lower the region's water table—a process that could take decades—and flush salt from croplands, boosting productivity and the region's economic vitality.

But at the present rate of shrinkage, Kamalov predicts, in a decade or so “the Aral will break up into three small lakes and disappear as an ecosystem.” Two lakes, mostly in Uzbekistan, likely would continue to shrivel. Kazakh officials hope to preserve the northern brackish lake by diking it off from the main water body to the south and allowing the Syr Darya to gradually refill it. They hope this will allow native fish to return to the north lake and revive its fisheries. There's a “real possibility” the Kazakhs will succeed, says Micklin.

A similar project, now gearing up, seeks to save an important wetland in the 28,000-square-kilometer Amu Darya delta, just south of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Half of the delta's wetlands have already dried up. The project focuses on Lake Sudoche, a roughly 500-square-kilometer lake southwest of Muynak that, by international convention, has been designated a critical habitat for waterfowl. Together with the surrounding marshlands, Sudoche is home to several endangered species, including the Bukhara deer, the Dalmatian pelican, the Siberian crane, and the bastard sturgeon.

The $3.9 million project will include the construction of earthen dams between the dry Aral Sea bed and Sudoche, which is becoming saltier and more oxygen-poor every year. Once completed, the dams should corral as much as 600 million cubic meters of rainwater during the fall and winter. The fresh water is expected to flush the wetlands and raise oxygen levels, improving conditions for wildlife. If the project succeeds in saving Lake Sudoche, GEF managers hope it will stimulate the local economy through increased fishing and hunting.

Project managers acknowledge, however, that the first big flush could have unintended ecological consequences, such as water temperature changes, which could in turn harm native wildlife. “The level of risk is unknown,” states a GEF report released last year. It points out, however, that “if nothing is done, Sudoche would become even more saline, the oxygen content of the waters would continue to drop, and the wetlands would lose much of [their] biodiversity and fish life.” Adds Micklin, “It's hard to see how the project would make things worse.”

The human dimension. As engineers and agronomists try to improve water management and stem the environmental destruction, organizations like DWB are focusing on human health. In one project, DWB staff members are collaborating with Muynak doctors to improve drug therapies at a local tuberculosis (TB) clinic. “We're building a brand-new dispensary,” says DWB doctor Darin Portnoy. “They just didn't have any money to do something like this.” Karakalpak officials welcome the foreign intervention. “We might not be able to save the Aral Sea,” says health minister Babanazarov. “But we may be able to save the people living around it.”

Karakalpakstan has dire health problems besides TB—rampant anemia and high infant mortality rates, for example—that also beg for resources. DWB epidemiologist Joost van der Meer is trying to ascertain the causes. “I'd bet on the toxic dust storms,” he says. In Nukus, the frequency of major dust storms has increased from about one storm every 5 years in the 1950s to about five a year, says Kamalov. Toxic dust storms, van der Meer says, “are the one thing you can't find anywhere else.” But few data exist on the dust's constituents. “I'm not sure of any reliable chemical analysis,” says Ross Upshur of McMaster University in Ontario, who has analyzed the scant Aral health data. “This is one of the key areas for initial research.”

Van der Meer acknowledges that it will take a lot of outside help to get to the bottom of the region's health woes. “We have no capacity to do this ourselves,” in either labor or lab facilities, he says. Local experts are also appealing for foreign partners. Thus van der Meer hopes to become a matchmaker of sorts, hooking up Western and Uzbek scientists for projects on everything from tracking disease rates to probing the dust's toxicity. What the Karakalpak researchers lack in data or equipment, however, they compensate for in access to a unique research site. As Kabulov points out, “There's no experience for science around the world in which a whole sea has disappeared.”

View Abstract

Navigate This Article