For years, the Aral Sea has been an object lesson in the adverse effect human actions can have on the environment. Once the fourth-largest lake on the planet, it shrank to a quarter of its former volume, breaking into two lakes separated by a land mass. The cause? Diversion of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers to feed thirsty cotton fields in Uzbekistan under the leadership of the Soviet Union. The resulting destruction left lakeside fishing villages marooned miles inland, the water polluted with a heavy concentration of minerals from fertilizer run-off, and citizens facing respiratory problems from toxic dust deposited by the receding waters.
"Waterfront" view from Aral, Kazakstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. From Wikipedia.
Reporting in the New York Times, Ilan Greenberg offers some hope for the recovery of the Aral Sea... part of it, at least. A World Bank-sponsored project - the Kok-Aral Dam - has been helpind desalinate the smaller Northern Aral Sea, raising the water level from 125 feet from 98 feet. The rise in sea levels has allowed fish stocks to (partially) return, and future projects are underway to return native fish to the sea. Fishermen are working the Northern Aral again for the first time in a generation.
While the Kok-Aral project is successful beyond its designers' expectations, the larger South Aral Sea is still in dire straits. The government of Uzbekistan - widely known for its human rights violations and secrecy - has been uncooperative with the Kazakhstan government on the projects to save the sea. The reasons may be, in part, economic: while the economy of Kazakhstan is thriving thanks to huge oil reserves, the cotton industry is still the largest employer in Uzbekistan.
The story of the Aral Sea has inspired heartbreaking books, like Tom Bissel's Chasing the Sea and Rob Ferguson's The Devil and the Disappearing Sea. Let's hope the recovery of the Aral progresses to the point where it inspires books about undoing our worst environmental errors.