Left - aerial of the Aral Sea in 1989. Right - in 2008.
Once one of the world's largest inland seas and home to thousands of species, in under 20 years the Aral Sea has shrunk to ten percent of its original size and is so salty that barely any life form remains. The Russians were taught to believe that the sea was an "error of nature" and therefore pointless, but as our Observer points out, the real catastrophe was man-made.
Once a vast stretch of water lying between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea covered 68,000 squared kilometres of water; placing it in fourth place on the world's largest inland saline bodies of water. For the best part of the past century, inhabitants around the Aral Sea thrived on the fishing industry, supplying the former USSR with 20 percent of its fish products. The Aral Sea's fate was sealed as early as 1918, however, when the Soviet authorities decided to divert two rivers that supplied the sea towards a neighbouring Uzbek desert in order to turn the region into one of the biggest raw cotton producers. Construction of the canals began in the 1940s, and although the USSR did succeed in growing cotton and rice out of desert land, by the beginning of the 1960s the sea's water level had started to fall. The lake since split in two, and then three. This year, one of the three dried up completely, leaving only 6,000 squared kilometres of water left in Kazakhstan, where efforts by the government maintain the remaining northern lake.
Images taken from NASA's Earth Observatory website. The first was taken in 2000, the second, in 2009.
The Aral Sea today
The Aral Sea as a holiday destination
Documentary footage featuring the Aral Sea and its surrounding areas -also by A.N. Bogachev in 1969. You can see the swimmers after 5 minutes 30 secs.
“It was a huge mistake on behalf of the Soviet planners who were trying too hard to please the authorities”
Alexey Yablokov is the leader of "Green Russia", an environment party which works under the socio-political movement "Yabloko".
When the media talk about the ‘the Aral Sea catastrophe' - the fact that the sea has almost disappeared - they usually miss the most important point: it wasn't a natural disaster but the result of a carefully orchestrated plan. Replacing the sea with rice fields was part of Stalin's infamous plans to remodel nature. Maps printed in the 1960s clearly reveal the extent of the planning. Naturally, it was a huge mistake on behalf of the Soviet planners who were trying too hard to please the authorities and never really looked into the consequences on the environment.
Before we can begin making improvements, we should first admit to this political and managerial mistake. The people who drafted and signed these monstrous plans haven't been named. Any long-term projects to turn this place into a blossoming garden won't be possible until the social and political structure of Central Asia starts to resemble something more like the EU. Projects are in abundance - it's the political will that is lacking. There are already interesting ideas to build big thermal solar power plants, that would be able to export electricity to neighbouring countries. Agricultural technologies permitting high-yielding crops with very low water consumption are already up and running."
Underwater hunting in 1969
Footage taken from the 1969 "Aral Sea Colony Film" by A.N. Bogachev.