Left: USGS and NASA images of the shrinking Aral Sea, 1964-2002 (click for larger image)
The shores of the Aral Sea were once dotted with fishing boats, providing a livelihood for countless generations of Central Asians along what was once the world's fourth-largest lake.
Soviet-era irrigation projects to divert water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea - especially the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya - reduced the lake's natural replenishment. Today the surface area of the Aral Sea is only 40 percent of its traditional size, and its total water volume a mere 20 percent of what it once held. There are technically today two "parts" of the Aral: the western "small" Aral and the eastern "large" Aral.
Al Gore mentioned the Aral Sea in his film An Inconvenient Truth, implicitly suggesting that the Aral was a casualty in global warming. He was correct that human ignorance led to this environmental catastrophe, but it is unlikely that global warming has much to do with the shrinking of the Aral Sea.
The remaining water of the Aral is polluted in many areas almost beyond human use, filled with agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, and chemical and biological contamination from Soviet weapons testing. Much of the exposed seabed evolved into immense plains of dust and salt, and health problems abound for people living near the Aral Sea.
Left: Abandoned ship on exposed seabed of the Aral Sea
There are efforts to reverse the degradation and restore the Aral Sea to its former state of health. The World Bank and the Kazakhstan government built the Kok-Aral Dam and a system of dikes to divert excess salt from the sea while improving water levels in the small Aral. The surface area of the northern portion of the small Aral has expanded by 30 percent in the past few years.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan has the resources to contribute to the restoration of portions of the Aral Sea, but Uzbekistan - with a per-capita income of only $1,920 - cannot afford the costs associated with sea reclamation. Moreover, the waters diverted from the Aral irrigate the cotton fields that produce Uzbekistan's main export crop.
Thus millions of acres of salinated wastelands provide a ready supply of material for the dust storms that plague a once-thriving region, and people like me go about our business half a world away, oblivious to an environmental disaster almost beyond comprehension.