The Aral Sea Is Dying, Putting 60 Million People at Risk As climate change accelerates

The Aral Sea Is Dying, Putting 60 Million People at Risk As climate change accelerates

As climate change accelerates, the fight for global water supplies will only intensify. 

The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest inland lake. Today, it’s the epitome of environmental malpractice. 

More than 60 million people in six nations—Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—rely on the rivers leading to the Aral. In the decades since the fracturing of the Soviet Union, cross-border competition for water, coupled with rapidly accelerating climate change, has made a bad situation worse.  

The two rivers that feed the basin, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, carry to the Aral about 10% of the water they did before Soviet industrial projects took hold in the 1960s. An ambitious new book, with contributions from 57 authors, describes the damage.  

About 17,000 square miles “of the seabed has become exposed and has turned into a vast desert,” the researchers write, “which has changed the local climate and intensified desertification in the region.” The remaining waters cover just 17% of the sea’s original 26,000 square-miles.

The Uzbek Town of Moynaq, a Graveyard of Commercial Fishing

Rusting fishing trawlers sit abandoned in Moynaq, Uzbekistan, in March 2018.

Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

The book proposes solutions, from bringing back weather and water monitoring that fell away in the 1990s to new legal agreements that bind the six Central Asian nations into sustainable water management. 

Currently, the basin is a beehive of competition among industries and nations that need water for different purposes, and at different times. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, however, are cooperating to bank and help manage the seasonal water resource. Kyrgyzstan uses winter run-off to generate power. Downstream, Uzbekistan uses the same water for irrigation in the summer.

Aral Sea

Satellite image of the shrinking of the Aral Sea from 2000 to 2013.

Source: NASA

The World Resources Institute recently reported that access to water for hundreds of millions of people is now at risk.

Along the Colorado River, climate change is causing aridification—the progression from cyclical drought to a permanent decrease in water—and threatening the welfare of 40 million Americans. In California, the demands of hydropower leaves farmers reliant on limited groundwater. (A study released Wednesday in the journal  Nature Communications  suggests that solar and wind energy may be able to take some of the load from hydropower, freeing up surface water for agriculture.)