• The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth-largest lake, but an irrigation project drained nearly all the water.
  • The consequences include the loss of a fishing industry, salt-laden dust affecting crops and human health, and an altered climate.
  • A dam has increased water levels in a small part of the lake called the North Aral.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics on how our actions are changing the planet.

If someone tells you that we lose 18.7 million acres of forests a year or that our surface oceans are 28% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution, you may struggle to imagine what that really means.

Well, in Central Asia, to the east of the Caspian Sea, there's a clear reminder of what we can do the natural world.

Shrinking sea

In the 1960s, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest body of inland water on Earth. Just decades later, it was almost gone.

The inland sea, which had covered 68,000 square kilometres in 1960, is now 85% smaller. And it’s due to human actions.

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The Aral Sea in 2018. The yellow lines show the approximate shoreline in 1960
Image: NASA

Creating a diversion

In the sixties, the Soviet Union undertook a major project to divert water destined for the Aral Sea to irrigate farmland in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

It transformed once-arid landscapes into predominantly cotton and rice farms – and cut the amount of water reaching the lake, with devastating results.

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The Aral Sea in 1964.
Image: NASA

Drier, saltier, less productive

The lake’s ecology changed significantly. The water became saltier, concentrations of minerals increased, and fertilizer and pesticides caused pollution.

The fishing industry – which employed about 60,000 people in the early 1960s – collapsed, and by the 1980s had disappeared.

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Abandoned boats now rest on sand.
Image: NASA

The Kok-Aral dam, completed in 2005 to prevent water flowing out from the North Aral into the South Aral, has helped some fisheries rebound. But other problems persist.

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The dusty lake bed is exposed to the region’s high winds, which carry the salt-laden and polluted soil, creating public health issues. This salty dust is also deposited on cropland, reducing crop yields.

The loss of such a substantial body of water has affected the region’s climate. Winters are colder and summers hotter and drier.

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Satellite images showing changing water levels in the Aral Sea from 2000-2011.
Image: NASA

Is the damage reversible?

Efforts have been made to save some of the lake. Kazakhstan built the Kok-Aral dike and dam, which saw fishing return to the North Aral as water levels increased in that part of the lake.

But as the satellite images show, most of the lake is still dry. They are a stark reminder that humans are damaging the planet faster than it can recover.